Helping Young People in Crisis, One Text at a Time

Written by Tracy Costigan. Tracy is a distinguished behavioral scientist and a senior learning officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Through her role, she is involved in the process of understanding and measuring key health and health care issues essential to the Foundation’s strategy to move our nation toward a Culture of Health.

Reprinted with permission from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health Blog.


It began with a shocking text message that left the staff at DoSomething.org deeply shaken.

The non-profit organization was originally created to promote youth volunteer and social action opportunities. It uses texting—the primary way in which teens communicate—to send thousands of daily messages alerting members to clothing drives, health fairs, park clean-ups, and more. Responses have been common. In addition to the usual sign-up requests, texters have also sought advice on how to handle a bully at school or help a friend struggling with addiction.

But as DoSomething’s CEO Nancy Lublin explained in a memorable TED Talk, one particular message from an anonymous girl changed their world.

 

 

 

 

 

DoSomething’s alarmed team asked who was assaulting her. A few hours later they got this reply:

 

 

 

And a few minutes after that:

 

 

 

 

Staff scrambled for guidance from a nearby sexual assault center and reached out to the girl again, but sadly, never heard back. Yet the anonymous girl’s desperation and courage spurred Nancy Lublin into convening a small team that created the Crisis Text Line.

Throwing Out a Lifeline with Text
Crisis Text Line initially launched quietly in Chicago and El Paso using 4,000 mobile numbers that were pulled from the DoSomething.org database. A text message invited recipients to opt in.

Despite the complete absence of marketing to promote the new effort, it grew at lightning fast speed as recipients spread the word across their own networks. Within four months, Crisis Text Line was in all 295 area codes of the United States yielding faster geographic growth than when Facebook launched.Now an independent nonprofit, Crisis Text Line provides free, text-based support to people in crisis anywhere in the United States, 24/7. Their average texter is 18 years old and Lublin notes that text has proven to be an ideal way to counsel young people. It offers anonymity, privacy, and access to a team of trained professionals who can work together to provide support that’s tailored to the crisis at hand. According to Lublin, almost two thirds of all texters are sharing something for the very first time that they never felt comfortable confiding in friends or family. This underscores just how trusted the service and medium are.

Many messages express struggles with anxiety and bullying; suicide and depression comprise 35 percent of messages received. Staff perform on average at least one active rescue a day, intervening when a texter has shared plans for imminently harming themselves or others. Real-time surveying of texters also reveals that the service is reaching rural and low-income areas. For example, they are disproportionately reaching the state of Montana which ranks number one in the nation for suicide rates, and where the Native American population is also high. In fact, 6 percent of Crisis Text Line texters self-report as Native American—a very sizable percentage considering that only 1.7 percent of people in the United States are Native American or Alaska Native.

After a little more than three years of operation, the organization’s volunteer Crisis Counselors and texters have exchanged more than 30 million text messages, accumulating the nation’s largest set of crisis data. It created www.CrisisTrends.org to help researchers, journalists, and public health experts better understand what drives teens to crisis and help policymakers and community leaders work together to focus on prevention.

Expanded Data and Analytics will Help Inform Interventions
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) recognizes the incredible impact that Crisis Text Line is having on social and emotional development of adolescents across the country. That’s why we recently funded a major expansion of Crisis Text Line’s data infrastructure and analytics program. Our goal is to help stakeholders use local, anonymized data to examine patterns of adolescent crises. This will inform interventions that can promote the health and well-being of our future generations.

Researchers are already taking advantage. For example, social work and public health experts at the University of Montana are sifting through tens of thousands of messages to better understand patterns of suicidal thought in the state. They hope to learn why Montana texters are ranked number one in the nation for prevalence of suicidal thoughts by exploring how suicidal ideation correlates with seasonal events, such as harsh winter weather and the academic calendar. They will also explore how loneliness, substance abuse, and relationship changes may affect suicidal thinking.

When their analysis is complete, researchers will work closely with state, tribal, and nonprofit leaders to improve mental health and suicide prevention programs and better target local interventions.

We hope this evidence-based, coordinated approach will spread throughout the United States, covering a wide variety of issues, including relationship challenges, eating disorders, LGBTQ issues, and other sources of teen stress and anxiety. You can view broader trends uncovered by the analytics team, and explore the interactive data visualizations available at www.CrisisTrends.org.

We R Here 4 U
We believe that whatever your geographic, ethnic, socioeconomic, or physical circumstances, you deserve an equal opportunity to live the healthiest life possible. That’s the essence of a Culture of Health, the Northstar that guides the work of RWJF.

Building a Culture of Health requires more than treating illness; it means creating an integrated and comprehensive approach. A Culture of Health puts well-being at the center and ensures that all children and families have access to the social and emotional building blocks of lifelong health and resilience. Crisis Text Line is advancing that vision by supporting teens and deepening our understanding about the root causes of stress and anxiety among young people today.

Finally, if you or a loved one are experiencing a crisis, please text 741741 from anywhere in the United States. Trained Crisis Counselors are always available, and the service is free and confidential.

Learn more about Crisis Text Line’s Open Data Collaboration and apply for access to this new resource.→

Can Learning Social Skills in School Pay Off Beyond the Classroom?

This post was originally published on The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health blog.

This is the first of a 5-part blog series, curated by RWJF, a TEDMED Global Partner. This blog series showcases the real and tangible ways that communities around the country are supporting the healthy development of children and young adults. The series helps to set the stage for the important conversations about child health and development that RWJF will host at TEDMED this year.

By Mark Greenberg and Tracy Costigan


Social emotional skills can help students set goals for themselves and build positive relationships with peers. They can also lead to long-term societal benefits that extend far beyond the individual child.

At an elementary school in the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin, the school day starts in an unusual way. Before they do anything else, students sit down at a classroom computer and select the face that best matches how they feel that morning.

If they’re feeling upbeat, they pick a green, smiling face. If they’re upset about something, there’s a red sad face. And if they feel somewhere in the middle there’s a yellow neutral face. This exercise helps these students develop self-awareness and emotional management skills. It also helps teachers recognize which students are having a tough day and where they might need help.

Ryan Coffey, a teacher and counselor at the Wisconsin school, calls this simple check-in an incredible tool that “can change the whole day.”

A 2nd grade Menominee student starts the day with mindfulness meditation.

“It’s about being proactive—before they blow up—instead of reactive. Because [incidents in the community] are hard on them, hard on their classmates and hard on their teacher. It’s traumatic for everyone. When they get older, those negative coping skills lead to the smoking, the drinking, the drug use. If we give them positive skills now … those are life skills they’ll use forever.”

This community has recognized, and put into practice, what research increasingly shows is clear: social emotional development is essential to long-term wellbeing and success.

In fact, building social emotional skills in students as young as kindergartners can have long-term benefits, not just for the students themselves but for society as a whole. Every dollar invested in effective social emotional programs in schools can bring an average of more than $11 in benefits in the long run.

These benefits come in a few different ways. First of all, students with stronger social emotional skills tend to do better in school. One study of eighth grade students found that a measure of self-discipline—one aspect of social emotional development—was a better predictor of grades, school attendance, and admission into a competitive high school program than even IQ.

Secondly, social emotional development can help students graduate from college and land a well-paying job. Children who demonstrate greater social emotional skills as young as kindergarten are more likely to have graduated from college and hold a full-time job 20 years later. Adolescents with these skills earn more as adults.

The long-term benefits of self-control, managing one’s emotions, and building strong relationships extend beyond the educational setting itself. Research shows that children with a stronger social emotional skill set were less likely to experience health problems, struggle with substance abuse, or engage in criminal activity as they got older.

All of these positive long-term outcomes benefit not just the student, but broader society. For instance, when students succeed in school and grow up to become productive adults, they’re ultimately supporting the overall well-being of their neighbors and communities. If, as adolescents grow older, they avoid substance abuse and crime, they’re also preventing associated societal costs.

Now, it’s no secret that investing early, supporting the whole child and student early on, pays off in the long run. Additional research further illustrates how early education programs promote social mobility within and across generations, helps prevent obesity, reduce health care expenditures and leads to overall higher-quality of life.

But what is new and exciting is that more and more schools are putting these social emotional principles and programs into practice the way the Menominee Nation is. Schools have always focused on building the academic skills and knowledge of students, and we’ve always viewed that as a long-term investment in our human capital. A large and growing body of research should make it clear that supporting students’ social, emotional, and physical health is just as strong an investment.


Learn more about research from RWJF and Pennsylvania State University, covering how teachers, parents, schools and others can support the social emotional learning of students.