How today’s front-line crisis volunteers are using text messaging to support distressed kids.
Three hundred and sixty-five days a year, intensively trained crisis line volunteers are talking with troubled youth across Canada, even if talking involves no verbal communication at all.
Volunteers like Ivy in Saskatoon, Jean* in Victoria and Xufan in Calgary are among the dedicated corps ready to listen and respond when a young person reaches out for help through written rather than spoken words.
At regional youth crisis lines, such as Calgary’s ConnecTeen and Youthspace.ca in B.C., support services offered via text and live online chat have proven popular given many young people’s preference to communicate that way. Last year, the well-known national service Kids Help Phone trained some 800 volunteer crisis responders for its new, bilingual text service which operates 24/7/365.
Demand for crisis line services has grown in lockstep with the public’s heightened awareness of mental health issues generated by high-profile ad campaigns and increased media attention, as well as celebrities sharing their own stories and struggles on social media.
School counsellor signs on
Ivy, a high school counsellor and resource room teacher, signed on as a volunteer text responder with Kids Help Phone last fall. She works from her home in Saskatoon, but the kids with whom she chats on the text crisis line could be anywhere in Canada.
“I was looking for a position where I could help people who are in crisis and, in particular, youth,” said Ivy, who previously worked at a sexual assault centre and is pursuing her masters in social work.
She fields text messages that come through an online portal. All volunteers respond under the supervision of mental health professionals who monitor the exchanges as they unfold. Typically, Ivy communicates with more than a dozen young people during her four-hour shift.
“We’re trying to help the person come from a hot moment to a cool calm. In the moment of crisis when they need someone to talk, we’re there. For the more long-term, professional counselling we offer the phone and online chat services,” Ivy explained.
“We stay on the line with the texter until they are able to enact coping strategies, until we help them feel a little better. There isn’t a time limit per se (for each interaction.)”
In cases where the texter is at risk of immediate harm or has been subject to abuse in the past, a supervisor will take the necessary action to ensure the person’s safety. Regional services have similar protocols in place. Otherwise, the service users are guaranteed anonymity.
Many youth using the Kids Help Phone text service are sharing their issue with someone for the first time, and on-going support is often recommended.
“We want to make sure the texters are able to reach out to the supports they have, either parents or other adults, school counsellors,” Ivy said. “We can also provide resources such as referrals to community supports, online articles or apps they can download. We want to empower the texter to talk to others and use coping strategies that will help them, as well.”
Generally, crisis responders are most in demand in the evenings when young people find themselves alone and in need of someone to talk to, to hear what’s troubling them, to help them cope and move towards a healthier mental state.
Jean, a Youthspace.ca volunteer who has been on the job in Victoria for six years, noted that the volume of contacts increases around exam times and during school holidays. Youthspace has also found that anxiety-inducing world events can cause a spike in demand, while ConnecTeen reported suicides by public figures –such as rock singer Chris Cornell, fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain — also have an impact.
Problems with friends or family, relationships and isolation are the most common factors behind the mental health issues — anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts — that prompt young people to contact the three organizations.
More recently, Jean has noticed an increase in chatters contacting Youthspace about eating disorders and matters related to transitioning as a transgender youth.
Youthspace offers its service users — teens and adults to age 30 — the option to connect using online chat or text. Volunteers work together in one location.
“The most challenging calls are ones in which people give one word answers. They don’t tell you much. Harder calls are when there is child abuse going on. That’s very difficult for me. The most rewarding ones are people who come in with high anxiety, having had a really bad day and by the end of the chat they say they’re feeling better and they thank you,” said Jean, who holds a degree in psychology and currently works in the technology field.
“I thought the Youthspace opportunity was cool because of the amount of training, getting to actually chat with people even when not being a (professional) counsellor,” added Jean, who has now decided to pursue a master’s degree in clinical or counselling psychology.
Peer support unique
ConnecTeen’s peer support service relies on some 60 responders (ages 15 to 20) who work via text, chat and phone lines, providing valuable and effective counsel to their peers. Some professionals even refer clients to ConnecTeen, believing that peer support would benefit them.
Twenty-year-old Xufan joined ConnecTeen’s volunteer ranks in 2017. The third-year microbiology student at the University of Calgary often found himself helping friends in crisis and decided to put his innate skills to work in a more formal way.
“It feels good being there for someone when they need someone to talk to the most. Talking on these lines, you get what you could call instant gratification because with the text you can see the effect of what you’ve done. It feels good doing that and lets you practise these skills and improve. You notice yourself slowly getting better at comforting people and communicating,” said Xufan, who plans to go into medicine.
“Every once in a while you get a curve ball with an issue you’re not sure how to deal with. There’s other people in the call centre — supervisors and other volunteers — who we can consult for advice. Whenever I feel I don’t have a complete grasp on what’s happening I’ll reach out for some advice. You want to make sure you’re giving the chatter or the caller the best help that you can.”
A big part of ConnecTeen’s crisis resolution is to create an action plan for the client, recognizing the person could benefit from seeing a counsellor, accessing other resources or talking with a trusted family member.
The written word
Xufan estimates that only about one in 10 youth who contact ConnecTeen call on the phone. Most text or use the instant messaging (live chat) function on ConnecTeen’s website.
Communicating only in writing comes easily for Xufan, but he takes care to use expressive words to convey compassion. Chat has its advantages, he says, like allowing responders more time to think and really process what’s going on.
Learning how to develop a rapport through text messages is key to these volunteer roles, as is conveying assurance to the young person that they are being heard. Clarity in what is being communicated to the texter is essential.
Jean noted, “With (verbal) conversation you have vocal cues and facial expression (when counselling face-to-face.) With text, it’s just words, but with this younger generation this is how they communicate generally. I don’t know how often they actually make a phone call. That’s what’s great about our training – learning how to pick up emotions in (written) words.”
Interactions with a texter can last for 45 minutes to an hour, while phone calls usually conclude in half that time, Xufan reported. Emojis are used infrequently by chatters and, in turn, by responders perhaps because of the more formal nature of communication between two strangers.
According to Xufan, Jean and Ivy, qualities needed to do well as a crisis line responder include being able to listen, understand and empathize. Being non-judgmental, open-minded and socially aware are important traits, as well. Volunteers must also know how to practise self-care considering the emotionally challenging nature of the work.
Crisis line volunteers come from all walks of life and age groups, although their ranks tend to skew to a younger demographic and to people studying or working in the social services and education fields. Kids Help Phone has attracted early career, veteran and retired teachers to its ranks.
All volunteers undergo rigorous training — from 36 to 40 hours — before their first shift, and receive additional coaching on the job. In return, a significant commitment is expected from the volunteer. Generally, that means working one shift weekly for at least a year once they graduate from training.
“There’s a lot to be learned,” said Jean, who now also provides on-the-job training for new volunteers. “It can be hard for sure, but I still recommend doing it, especially if you have interest in counselling or even being a teacher. We’ve had teachers come in wanting to learn so they can better serve students who come to them with issues. You learn a lot of valuable and transferable skills.”
* Jean is a pseudonym. Youthspace volunteers are assured anonymity.
By Laurie Nealin
Interested in volunteering?
The three organizations featured in this article recruit new volunteers at regular intervals throughout the year. Bilingual (English-French) volunteers are always needed at Kids Help Phone.
Up to 40 hours of training is required before the first shift. Volunteers are also coached on the job. Generally, volunteers must commit to working one shift weekly (approx. 4 to 5 hours) for one year following their training.
For specifics, please consult the organization’s website.
Kids Help Phone
Web portal: kidshelpphone.ca
Target group: young people primarily under age 25
Reach: national (headquarters in Toronto)
Services available via:
- text TALK to 686868 (for French service, text TEXTO to 686868)
- online chat (instant messaging) portal on kidshelpphone.ca*
- mobile chat with Always There app*
- phone 1.800.668.6868*
Volunteers: 800 text responders trained (as of Nov. 2018)
Contacts received (2018): approx. 30,000 text conversations, 275,000 phone + online chats
*80 staff professionals handle the core counselling via telephone and live chat
Web portal: youthspace.ca
Target group: teens and young adults (to age 30)
Reach: throughout B.C. and beyond
Services available via:
- text 778.783.0177
- online chat (instant messaging) portal on youthspace.ca
Hours: 6 p.m. to 12 midnight (Pacific time)
Contacts received (2017): 5,000
Web portal: calgaryconnecteen.com
Founded: 1983 (Teen-Line) Renamed ConnecTeen in 2011
Target group: youth
Reach: Calgary and area
Services available via:
- text 587-333-2724 for peer support
- online chat (instant messaging) portal on CalgaryConnecTeen.com for peer support
- 24/7 phone 403-264-TEEN (8336) for peer or adult support
Hours: peer support available weekdays 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., weekends 12 noon – 10 p.m. (Mountain time) Outside those hours, adult volunteers take phone calls.
Volunteers: 50 – 60 youth (ages 15 to 20), 250 – 300 adults
Contacts received (2018): approx. 7,500
More help for kids across Canada There are myriad youth and adult crisis help lines across Canada. Comprehensive listings of these organizations can be found here https://suicideprevention.ca/Need-Help . Organizations offering text and online chat are listed under the Resources heading here http://youthspace.ca/