More troubled teens seeking help by texting helpline
A suicide prevention group in Boston is receiving a growing number of text messages on its helpline, supporting its theory that high school students and young adults are more likely to reach out for support and guidance if they don’t have to speak on the phone.
Samaritans Inc. received more than 300 text messages on its helpline last month, nearly triple the number in January, and expects that total to more than triple by this summer as word of the program spreads.
“I anticipate getting to 1,000 per month by the summer,” said Steve Mongeau, the group’s executive director. “Some people just feel there is more privacy in texting than talking.”
The statewide group began accepting text messages in October, and has since expanded the volunteer-based program to provide around-the-clock service. It has also launched a public awareness campaign called “You Are Not Alone” to promote the service at MBTA stations and other busy areas.
“Hopeless? Lonely? Desperate? We’re here to listen,” one of the group’s messages read. “Call or Text Samaritans Helpline.”
In 2013, the most recent year for which state data is available, there were 177 suicides in Massachusetts among people 34 and younger, according to state public health officials.
In a 2014 Gallup survey, more than two-thirds of 18- to 29-year-olds said they sent and received text messages “a lot” the previous day, compared with 50 percent who frequently made or receive phone calls.
That trend persuaded the Samaritans to accept text messages, in the spirit of meeting teenagers and young adults where they are.
“Our belief was, for the vast majority of people under the age of 30, texting would be their preferred method to contact us,” Mongeau said.
Texts pop up in a window on a computer screen, like the instant messages sent in IM_Hear, the group’s online chat program for teens.
Volunteers do not necessarily know the age of people who are seeking help, but believe most are young. While text messages are generally used to express quick, shorthand thoughts, most writers are “expressing themselves very clearly,” Mongeau said.
Volunteers are trained to understand emoticons, abbreviations, and other texting symbols, although many were already familiar with them.
Whether people call or text in their time of need, the approach to helping them is the same, Mongeau said.
“At the core of our principles and beliefs are to provide befriending, nonjudgmental listening and communication,” Mongeau said. “That’s all remained the same, no matter how people reach us.”
Although the number of text messages to the helpline have increased, the overwhelming number of people — some 6,000 a month — reach out by phone.
The Samaritans join a growing number of suicide prevention groups that use confidential chats, either through texts or instant messages, to communicate with people in distress.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs has long offered texting as part of its national crisis line, based in upstate New York, to veterans contemplating suicide. Veterans are urged to send a text to “838255 to get help NOW,” according to the website www.veteranscrisisline.net .
Last month, students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created an anonymous texting hotline called “Lean On Me,” which gives students a chance to discuss their problems with their peers.
Mental health specialists said the Samaritans program gives teenagers who may be contemplating suicide a familiar way to reach out for a lifeline.
“It’s an adaptation of meeting kids where they’re at,” said Jon Mattleman, director of Needham Youth Services, which started a suicide prevention program nearly a dozen years ago after several local teenagers took their own lives. “When a kid types out an emoticon what they’re really trying to do is to convey that [emotion] in reality.”
Justin Baker, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, said the texting program had the potential to reach far more people.
“The whole field is looking for new ways to get buy-in from younger people, in a nontraditional way,” Baker said.