FRAMINGHAM — The clicking computer keys type out the same empathy that these teen volunteers use when answering phone calls at the Samaritans crisis center.
“Um-hms’’ and “un-huhs’’ typed into an instant message window must do the work usually conveyed by verbal cues. Text shorthand and emoticons are no-nos, so there won’t be any “IDKs’’ instead of “I don’t knows,’’ or smiling faces and concerned expressions.
Still, all conversations, be they on the phone or online, start pretty much the same: “Hello. What brings you to chat today?’’
Samaritans, the nearly 40-year-old suicide prevention organization, modernized its outreach efforts this month by launching a teen-to-teen instant messaging service called IM Hear_, a project in the works for four years.
“We’re raising a whole generation of people who don’t hear their own voices,’’ said Eileen Davis, director of the Samaritans Framingham office. “They can be . . . having conversations with friends or just be in crisis, and it’s all online with all kinds of windows open.’’
The goal of the instant messaging service is for teens to reach teens, whose crises - depression, suicide, bullying, sexuality - are more acknowledged today but who seldom reach out via the telephone hot line, which generates most of its calls from people older than 30.
“You have to work harder to be empathetic and not be a faceless person who doesn’t really care,’’ said Ashley Campisano, a 16-year-old junior at Medfield High School who volunteers with the new service. “You don’t get to hear the silences and hear the voice and hear the mood.’’
Still, she said, it feels more natural for her to communicate online because that’s how she routinely talks to friends. Campisano started out answering the phones her freshman year every Tuesday night for three hours. This month, she became one of nine teen volunteers who, having undergone training to run the chat line, respond to instant messages. The program cost $100,000 to develop.
Helping people in crisis, she said, “has been a huge experience in changing perspectives in how people deal with mental illness.’’ She grew up watching the effect suicide had on her family. Her grandfather took his life when her mother was in college.
Mostly, the teens sit at the computer screen, waiting for the familiar jingle of an instant message alert. Since the service started, just over a dozen people have typed in seeking help.
Administrators said they aren’t worried about the lack of calls thus far. It’s similar to when the Framingham office opened in the mid-1980s, Davis said.
“When we put a phone with a help line number, volunteers were sitting here looking at the phone,’’ she said from inside the small office with brightly colored rooms. Now, Samaritans offices in Framingham and Boston together field about 150,000 calls a year.
“We’re so excited about this, but at the same time, we are so scared, because it’s about matching supply and demand,’’ said Roberta Hurtig, executive director of the charity.
The center is distributing the URL for the IM help line to one school, Framingham High, though another, Everett High, will be ready to come online at the end of the month. The goal is to expand to 10 schools - public and private, large and small.
‘We’re raising a whole generation of people who don’t hear their own voices.’Teresa Cugno, neighbor in Somerville
Teens are available for three hours a night Monday through Thursday, but the aim ultimately is to have someone responding to text messages around the clock.
Each teen must be an experienced volunteer who has gone through 30 hours of call training, worked the phone lines a significant amount of time, and completed additional chat training.
There is a sense of calm in the crisis center, and very little talking. Samaritans don’t so much talk the distraught off the ledge as help someone over a hurdle. “If you walk into our phone room and hear much talking, we’re not doing our job,’’ Hurtig said. “Most of our interactions are really about providing emotional support to get people through that dark moment.’’
Jessica Kruger knows all too well about tough times. The Framingham High junior was diagnosed with depression and a panic disorder two years ago. She has been a hot line volunteer for three months and doesn’t have enough tenure to instant message but plans to sign up as soon as she does.
“I was afraid it would be a little too close to home, but it turned out to be really healing,’’ Kruger said, the words “Be Strong’’ written on the back of her hand in marker. The words are a self-help technique she uses to draw strength and to help others. Teens, she said, aren’t necessarily comfortable calling crisis hot lines - herself included.
“Before I came here, I was really unsure there was hope,’’ Kruger said. “And the fact that I was able to give people that hope that I was lacking, and the fact that after so long I had the strength to do that, was incredible.’’Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.