By Alan Resnick / Detroit
“Hi. My name’s Alan and I’m here to listen. Tell me about your crisis.”
That’s how I begin each conversation during my two, two-hour shifts per week as an online crisis counselor. I’ve been periodically volunteering for Crisis Text Line (CTL) since 2017 and have supported almost 1,500 texters.
I’m a retired Ph.D. level psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. But there are no particular educational background or experience requirements needed to volunteer. CTL simply requires applicants to be 18 years or older, have a U.S. social security number and/or U.S. mailing address, a personal computer, and a reliable internet connection.
All CTL crisis counselors must complete 30 hours of training. The training involves things like the steps associated with a good conversation, how to do risk assessment, and how to ask open-ended questions. This provides standardization of how counselors interact with texters.
Online crisis counselors do not provide therapy, but rather attempt to help the texter stay safe and get through the day. In CTL’s terminology, counselors bring texters “from a hot moment to a cool calm.” Conversations typically last 30-45 minutes although some run longer, depending on nature of the crisis and the length of the queue.
Similarly, my role is not to provide advice, but rather to problem-solve collaboratively. If a texter asks me, “What do you think I should do?” my response will be either, “Well, what advice would you give to a friend if they came to you with a similar situation?” or “What choices have you identified for yourself?”
CTL was the first national 24/7 crisis intervention hotline based on text messaging. The impetus originated with DoSomething.org, a nonprofit that helps young people start volunteer campaigns. One day in 2011 a volunteer responsible for sending out text messages to teenagers across the country received a text from a young woman she had contacted: “He won’t stop raping me.”
That was the first of various texts that were received about rape and other issues like anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and eating disorders. The volunteer who took that horrifying first text and the CEO of DoSomething.org started what became CTL two years later.
While people of all ages utilize the service, the majority of texters tend to be adolescents, teens, and twentysomethings. CTL capitalizes on the usage of text messaging by these groups as a primary means of communication. A 2015 article in The New Yorker about CTL reported that: “The average adolescent sends almost 2,000 text messages a month.” No doubt that number has increased since then.
Texting provides a high degree of privacy, in that a teenager who is being bullied at school, for example, can simply slip into an empty classroom or restroom stall and reach out for help. And some people prefer the impersonal nature of a text over the greater intimacy of hearing another voice over the phone.
Texting also is beneficial for counselors. I’m able to volunteer from home. Texters’ messages go through the CTL platform and appear on my computer, so I can support a person while in workout clothes and having lunch. And it seems less threatening to ask very direct questions like “Has suicide crept into your thinking?” in writing than verbally.
Texters are not required to share their names or any identifying information. But as a conversation progresses and I sense that some rapport has been established, I ask the person if they are willing to share their first name with me, emphasizing that it is strictly voluntary. Using a texter’s first name further builds rapport and makes things more conversational. More than half the texters provide a name, although it could very well be a nickname or alias.
People can text about any subject. Most of the conversations involve anxiety and/or depression. But texters also reach out to discuss abuse of all types, addiction, bad breakups, bullying, eating disorders, gender/sexual identify, grief, homelessness, self-harm, and thoughts of suicide. Some people text not for themselves but rather to help a family member or friend in crisis.
As you might surmise, conversations involving self-harm, suicide, or abuse are the most nerve-wracking to conduct. If a person communicates that they are having imminent thoughts of suicide and have ready access to the means of doing so, I contact my shift supervisor and advise them that an active rescue may be needed. My supervisor can then monitor our conversation.
Most people with immediate thoughts of suicide agree to stay safe while we continue to talk and problem-solve. However, there have been a few situations where the person suddenly texted that they had just cut themselves or swallowed a handful of pills. I immediately alert my shift supervisor, who can initiate an active rescue of the individual by contacting 911 corresponding to the texter’s phone number (to which I do not have access).
Imagine texting with a person who messages they are in the process of taking their own life. My role shifts to trying to keep the person talking and calm until emergency services arrive. Most times I’ve been successful, but some texters have disconnected from the chat, and others have simply stopped responding.
I can’t help but agonize over what a lack of response or a disconnection signifies in a situation like this. Supervisors occasionally have reached out and inquired about my interest in knowing the disposition from a conversation that involved an active rescue. I’ve always declined.
Conversations involving physical, sexual, or emotional abuse are equally disquieting, particularly if the texter appears to be 17 years old or less. In these situations, CTL is obligated to report the incident to the appropriate authorities, but only if the texter is willing to provide their full name, date of birth, and complete address. These are exceptionally difficult and delicate conversations to have, and most texters who report they are 17 years old or less are unwilling to provide the required information.
I wonder if texters have any idea that they are not communicating with someone close to their own age, but rather someone age 72 and in many cases old enough to be their grandfather? Does my first name reveal that I am of a different generation? I’ve considered using an alias or an androgynous name like Pat or Sandy as some counselors do, but so far, no texter has asked.
Much of the training and effectiveness as a crisis counselor essentially boils down to being able and willing to listen with empathy and without judgment. When someone texts that they are thinking of cutting themselves because their significant other just broke up with them, they don’t want to be told that “There are other fish in the sea” or “They were no good for you anyway.”
What they more likely want to hear is, “Breakups can be so hurtful. That had to be devastating for you.” By recognizing and acknowledging the emotion in the text, trust begins to develop and forms the basis for a deeper, more open discussion.
The empathetic component is relatively easy for me. It can be much more challenging to remain non-judgmental about certain topics. I recently had a conversation with a distraught person who texted because a social media account on which they posted explicit selfies had been hacked. The hacker was now threatening to distribute the pictures unless the texter was willing to pay to have them destroyed.
While reading these texts, I couldn’t help but want to say what I believe most folks my age would– “What the hell were you thinking?” But all the texter read was: “That has to be very embarrassing and painful for you. Tell me what you’ve done so far to address this situation.”
My six years as an online crisis counselor have been incredibly rewarding. And they have served to remind me of some very fundamental things. First, we all need to be heard and need someone in our lives who will hear us. The number of texters who report that they have no family member, friend, teacher, coach, or clergy member with whom they feel that they can be open is deeply dismaying.
Next, one of the greatest gifts we can provide another person simply is to listen to them. But effective listeners are in incredibly short supply. Far too often we equate offering an opinion or solution or trying to show understanding by saying something like: “You think that’s bad? Let me tell you about what happened to me!” as listening.
But often, we aren’t looking for someone to offer an opinion, fix things for us, or share their experience in a similar situation. Sometimes we simply need someone to recognize and acknowledge our joy, fear, pain, shame, frustration, or disappointment.
Finally, working as an online crisis counselor helps me keep my own frustrations or disappointments in perspective. All I have to do is to think back to my previous shift to remember that things could be much worse.
If you, a friend, or a loved one are in crisis, text HOME to 741741. Someone will be there for you 24/7.
Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.