Crisis Text Line Leads with Empathy

By the early 2010s, text messaging had become the communication channel of choice for much of society, especially younger people. Deploying that channel to provide mental health support and crisis intervention was the brainchild of a non-profit change maker.

Published May 9, 2023 | 2 min read

The mission

Crisis Text Line has supported more than 8 million conversations with people who find themselves in despair. It’s free, confidential, round-the-clock service extends across the U.S.; it also runs services through affiliates in Canada, Ireland and the UK.

The triggers for crisis are varied, but feeling alone is a common theme, especially since the pandemic.

“Last year, the number one reason people were reaching out was isolation – even more than depression or suicidal ideation,” says Melanie Samarasinghe, Crisis Text Line’s Chief Business Development Officer.

Standing by with support are the organization’s volunteer Crisis Counselors. They are overseen by mental health professionals who supervise every conversation and give real-time feedback.

Using empathetic listening techniques, the team’s goal is to build rapport and trust with each texter, explore their issues, and bring them to a point of calm and safety.

“Our goal is to de-escalate – to move people from a moment of high stress and anxiety, create an opportunity to think about that next step, and then bring them to a cool, calm place,” Melanie says.

Reflecting the demographic of the current mental health crisis, many of the service’s users are young people.

“Even though we’re available to everyone, it is Gen Z that reaches out,” says Melanie. “Two-thirds are aged 24 or under. ”

That makes Crisis Text Line a particularly good fit for the RBC Foundation USA's strategy of funding programs that support young people’s mental well-being.

“We’re truly grateful to RBC for leaning in – the support of our partners makes it possible for us to support anyone in their moment of need and helps us keep our service and volunteer training program free,” Melanie says.

The programs

The RBC Foundation USA currently supports two programs to develop Crisis Text Line services in areas of particular need. The first is the organization’s Spanish language service.

This program targets an acute area of unmet need. While Latina adolescents attempt suicide more often than other groups of female teenagers, only 5.5% of mental health providers offer services in Spanish.

“Getting people the care they need, in the way they need it,” says Mishka Pitter-Armand, Chief Marketing Officer. “Is exactly why it’s so powerful to have the combination of access to care that’s done in a culturally competent fashion.”

The RBC Foundation USA’s grant is helping to expand the program, which supported 7,800 Spanish-language texters and trained over 500 bilingual volunteers in its first year.

The RBC Foundation USA is also supporting the Student Learning Program, which engages Masters of Social Work students. Their degree requires 200 to 600 hours of practical experience – a big barrier for many students, who often have other commitments. Through the program, they complete the volunteer Crisis Counselor training and achieve their practical hours through Crisis Text Line’s platform.

“The students are very diverse,” says Dr. Misha Harris, Director of Student Learning. “Many are single parents or caretakers, often living in rural areas. 

“The students bring incredible new perspectives to our service,” says Dr. Misha Harris, Director of Student Learning. "In addition, through our service, students get experience that’s fit for them, especially important for single parents or caretakers or those that live in rural areas.

“Because they have such busy lives, they are often willing to cover overnight shifts – the highest time of need, when people most often reach out for help. So, while gaining the critical experience they need, the students are helping us reduce wait times for our overnight texters.”

The RBC Foundation USA’s grant is helping Crisis Text Line to expand the number of students in the program to its target of 500.

Crisis Text Line at a glance

Founded: 2013
Based: New York, with operations across the U.S. and internationally
Cause: Mental health crisis support
RBC Foundation USA partner since: 2018

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