If you’re a teenager and you’re upset or in trouble, what do you do? You pick up your cell phone and text.
If you need help, the number is simple: 741741 — the numbers up the left side of they keypad. It’s the number for the Crisis Text Line, available to any teen (or adult, for that matter) any time, anywhere.
The Crisis Text Line is the creation of Nancy Lublin and Stephanie Shih, CEO and employee, respectively, of DoSomething.org, based in New York City. The company mostly directed teens to volunteer opportunities and social cases in their communities.
According to a story in The New Yorker, Shih got a call one day in 2011 from a teen who was raped repeatedly by her own father and she went to Lublin, who was also horrified and recognized a need. Together, the women worked on the Crisis Text Line project for the next two years, and it went live in August 2013.
One of the people who read that story in The New Yorker, titled “R U There,” was Winters resident Debbie Hemenway, a retired teacher and librarian for the Winters school district. She has been a Crisis Text Line volunteer for about three months.
“The thing that meant the most to me while I was teaching was the contact with the kids,” she said. “I missed doing something important with the kids.
“I always thought of my librarian job like the kids’ bartender, on the other side of counter. Kids often told me something important about their lives, and I wanted to keep doing that.”
Becoming a Crisis Text Line volunteer begins with a 34-hour training program over the course of six weeks, and then committing to a four-hour shift each week to be available for incoming texts that are read online at the volunteer’s own computer at home.
Hemenway describes the training as “excellent — state-of-the-art.” A new program begins every six weeks, and Hemenway explains that it includes online, interactive training, self-directed modules and online meetings. Some of the skills that are taught include active listening and crisis intervention, which Hemenway clarifies is not psychotherapy.
“We are helping people cool down, not providing therapy,” she says. “Some of them need to just get through the night.”
Volunteers also learn how to handle crisis texts, and how to respond as well as how not to respond, and have online referrals to offer for specific needs. The volunteers additionally become part of a community where they can support and become familiar with each other.
Hemenway says that once Crisis Text Line was established two years ago, the incoming calls mushroomed; when the program first went live in New York City, 95 texts came in within minutes. Nationwide, nearly 8 million texts are exchanged, and she says it’s “getting bigger all the time.”
About 400 crisis counselors are participating, but more are needed. During spikes in incoming texts, Hemenway says as many as 35 volunteers may be online at once.
She emphasizes that all texts are “absolutely confidential and anonymous.” Volunteers cannot see the texter’s name or cell phone number. All the volunteers can see is a random number assigned to the text exchange.
Hemenway says the only way the number will be tracked is if a suicide is in progress, and then the volunteers are bound by law to break that confidence to save a life. She notes, however, that this often isn’t really a problem.
“If somebody texts in, they want somebody to stop them,” she explains. “They aren’t texting if they don’t want help.”
Besides anonymity, the texts are free of charge. Hemenway says the major phone carriers will waive texts to 741741, and they also will not show up on a cell phone bill, so teens don’t have to worry that their parents will find out.
When someone sends a text to 741741, they will get a text in return that says a counselor will be with them as soon as possible. Texts can be sent for any reason: suicidal thoughts, bullying, family issues, depression, anxiety and abuse of any type. The texter can offer a first name or remain anonymous.
Hemenway says the growing popularity of the Crisis Text Line is the medium itself — texting — which is second nature to most teens now, most of whom have their own cell phones.
She notes that texting is discrete and convenient. Teens can text right from campus if they need to, from the restroom or during lunch.
Hemenway is so impressed with the value of the program that she is reaching out to anyone and everyone who might be interested in volunteering, too.
Anyone interested can sign up for the training at crisistextline.org/volunteer. The application deadlines for the next three upcoming training sessions are Sept. 22, Nov. 17 and Dec. 8. Those who are unable to volunteer but would like to support the cause can do so via PayPal donations.
In addition to crisis counselors, volunteers are also needed to help maintain websites, servers and do IT work, but Hemenway says, “what they really want is more volunteers.”