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Texting Hotlines Helpful to Teens in Mental Health Crisis

With the number of teens reporting mental health problems drastically increasing during the pandemic, text message-based crisis services like the one launched by the Trevor Project in 2014 are seeing increased use.

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(TNS) — As the pandemic worsened, so too did the mental health of teenagers across the country.

Hospitals have been raising alarms during the pandemic that the teen suicide risk, already the second leading cause of death between adolescents aged 15 to 19 years, appears to be rising. The director of the Division of Pediatric Hospital Medicine at Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence told The Providence Journal they have seen a "massive pandemic of mentally ill adolescents," to the point where three-quarters of the patients in the hospital were adolescents who wanted to hurt themselves because of mental illness.

Not only has the pandemic isolated teens from school and their friends, but it has also isolated them from the traditional ways of seeking and receiving help through in-person services.

But a pre-pandemic development may offer a lasting solution, and a potential lifeline: text message crisis services.

Why text message hotlines may be right for teenagers in crisis

Crisis hotlines exist, but many of those services are geared toward adults in crisis, and require calling in on a phone - a medium many teenagers are not comfortable with.

Because pandemic or not, young people use online chat and text features more often than phone calls, says Michele Giordano, vice president of Digital Crisis Services at the Trevor Project.

The Trevor Project is the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth. The high suicide rates for LGBTQ youth - who are four times more likely to seriously consider suicide, plan for it, and attempt it than their peers - meant The Trevor Project needed to adapt well before the pandemic to reach that population. So they put their services where teens are: on their phones, launching TrevorChat in 2010, and TrevorText in 2014.

Online chat and texting services serve many high-priority needs for LGBTQ youth: flexibility, 24/7 access, privacy - especially important if an LGBTQ teen is living in an unsupportive environment, and the ability to control how they present to avoid being misgendered, Giordano said. But some of those priorities, like privacy and flexibility, are also important to just about all teenagers.

“Conversations around technology can often seem impersonal, but for us, investing in best-in-class technology has meant being able to train more counselors, serve more youth in crisis, and save young lives," said Giordano.

Since the onset of COVID-19, the volume of youth who’ve reached out to the Trevor Project’s crisis services has increased “significantly,” Giordano said, at times double the organization’s pre-COVID volume. The " widespread anxiety, physical distancing, and economic strain" have created and compounded problems, she said.

From Aug. 1, 2019 to July 31, 2020, the Trevor Project served over 150,000 crisis contacts via phone calls, texts and online chats. That includes 85,000 calls to the TrevorLifeline and 66,000 contacts to the organization’s digital services.

Could this work elsewhere?

While the Trevor Project is focused on LGBTQ youth, the multiplatform approach is one Giordano believes organizations in the crisis intervention and suicide prevention space should try.

And some already are. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline has an online chat feature through their website, and the Crisis Text Line offers free 24/7 access to counselors by texting "Home" to 741741 or by Facebook Messenger - though neither group is specifically geared toward youth and teenagers.

For organizations looking to start their own text services, Giordano encouraged leveraging of tech partnerships, and a consideration of how they can “modernize platforms, and scale their services to reach more young people who need support in times of crisis.”

(c)2021 Newport Daily News, R.I. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.