How to Prevent Suicide in 50,000 Texts a Day, Thanks to a Lifesaving Crisis Hotline

Aaron answered a text message from a 19-year old woman who wrote she was feeling hopeless. Aaron, a veteran who has suffered from PTSD and depression, understood the feeling.

Sept_2016_FOB_Everyday_heroes_Nancy_lublin_Tom_SchirmacherTom Schirmacher
The CTL is the brainchild of Nancy Lublin.

For the past year, Aaron has been volunteering with the Crisis Text Line (CTL), a free, confidential 24-hour service that people in need of a lifeline can access via the number 741741. The line currently has 1,500 volunteer Crisis Counselors across the country and has exchanged more than 19 million texts—50,000 messages a day.

As he had been instructed, Aaron “listened” openly and nonjudgmentally to the young woman. He didn’t offer advice; he didn’t try to help her solve her problems. Mostly, his messages mirrored back what he’d heard from her, occasionally emphasizing a strength that he’d noticed—like the fact that she’d taken this step to help herself even in the midst of her depression.

“A lot of people have an overwhelming loneliness,” he says. “Sometimes it takes a stranger to say, ‘Hey, you’ve been through hell, but you’ve been helping yourself. If you can do that, you can do more.’ Many people reply, ‘I’ve never thought about it that way.’”

The goal of a crisis line, explains Nancy Lublin, who runs the CTL, is narrow. It’s not therapy; it’s meant to bring people from “a moment of hot to a moment of cool,” so counselors can suggest ways the texter can move to a place of increased safety.

Researchers are excited about the text line. “Teens have been reluctant to use crisis services,” observes Anthony Pisani, a suicide-prevention researcher. “The CTL offers a layer of protection from the shame of expressing your vulnerabilities.”

As for the woman with whom Aaron was communicating, the opportunity to share her feelings with an empathetic person appeared to help. “She said she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had told her they believed in her,” Aaron recalls. She ended the conversation the way people often do, by texting, “Thanks for listening.”

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