Navigating Psychic Pain in a Digital Age: My Volunteer Work as a Crisis Counselor

A chime sounds from my laptop, and a message appears on my screen: i want to die.

    This has become a typical Saturday night for me; in November 2015, I began volunteering for a crisis hotline known as Crisis Text Line. After applying, getting accepted, going through six weeks of training, and taking a final exam, I officially became a Crisis Counselor. This means I am prepared to help strangers, communicating only through text messages, navigate some of the darkest times in their lives.

    Everyone at Crisis Text Line, from the founders to the staff to the volunteer Crisis Counselors, considers the medium of texting to be a different and necessary approach to crisis hotlines. Through the use of text messaging, Crisis Text Line is able to service certain groups who need help but aren’t able to call a hotline—for example, people who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing, or people with social anxiety. Texting also differs beneficially from a phone call in that it is silent, private, and convenient. People in crisis, who we call “texters,” can send texts without those around them hearing what they are saying, which is useful in school settings, where problems like bullying and eating disorders are often prevalent. The silence of text messaging is also useful in situations where the texter lives with an abusive parent or significant other. Although texters use their phones to contact us, Crisis Counselors conduct all counseling through a website platform that has chat windows, similar to Facebook Messenger. Using a computer allows Crisis Counselors to provide help more quickly and easily, while also allowing us to ask our supervisors and fellow Crisis Counselors for help with tough conversations or texters who are in an active rescue situation — meaning they are at immediate risk of suicide — through a separate chat on the platform.

    Crisis Text Line doesn’t only provide mental health help by training Crisis Counselors to directly chat with people — the organization also collects data on these conversations. Formed in 2013, Crisis Text Line is a fairly new service, but they are hoping to use the data they collect to make a difference in texters’ communities. The data collected includes topics, time of day, the day of the week, and location (found using the texter’s area code). All of this data can be viewed publicly on crisistrends.org, but all of the other information stays private. When all of this data is consolidated, it can be used to analyze societal trends. For example, if many teenagers in one area text in about bullying, the school district might take this into consideration and enforce new anti-bullying regulations. A spike in mentions of Islamophobia has been noted within the past year when more Muslim texters started reaching out for help because they felt unsafe. This is likely due to the political tensions perpetrated by the anti-terror rhetoric of the 2016 election campaign. Crisis Text Line hopes that communities can use this data to make changes that would help residents feel safer.

    Among other crisis and suicide hotlines, Crisis Text Line made the news following Election Day 2016, when conversation volume spiked from the normal 1,000 conversations per day to an eventual 4,000 conversations by Thursday, November 10th. This was the highest spike in volume we had ever seen at that point, and the first time such a large number of conversations had been in response to politics. Topics and words most associated with these post-election texters were “fear” and “LGBTQ.” Other hotlines that saw a spike in volume included the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a US-based suicide prevention hotline, Trans Lifeline, a crisis hotline for transgender individuals, and the Trevor Project hotline, a suicide hotline for LGBTQ individuals, particularly teenagers.

    In October of 2016, I had the opportunity to attend a conference held by Crisis Text Line called Palooza. The event brought together as many Crisis Counselors as possible for a weekend in Austin, Texas to discuss the service, present keynote speeches from members of the staff, and hold breakout sessions to discuss the aspects of counseling that we wanted to give feedback on or improve. I came away from the event with a stronger commitment to the organization, and a new set of strategies I could use during my shifts. It was also engaging to meet fellow Crisis Counselors and staff members with whom I normally only interact online. Being able to meet members of the staff and learn from them made it even more enjoyable to volunteer with this organization. This year, Palooza will be held in Atlanta, and I can’t wait to attend for the second time.

    In early October 2016, I was accepted as a member of the Youth Advisory Council at Crisis Text Line. This is a group of people aged 18-25 that meets over video chat to discuss and brainstorm ways to improve the service Crisis Text Line is providing to young people in particular. As a part of Youth Advisory Council, I have worked towards raising awareness of Crisis Text Line on campus and through social media as well as provided feedback on how Crisis Text Line serves teenage and young adult texters. I have even represented Crisis Text Line at events on campus, including the GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) Summit, which facilitates collaboration and provides resources for LGBTQ Youth in the Atlanta area.

    The four hours per week I spend conversing with people in crisis can be tough, and sometimes those conversations do stay with me -- but the Supervisors on the platform are always there to debrief after a conversation, if needed, and self-care is highly encouraged. Most of the time, however, I walk away feeling relieved and rewarded. It’s not unusual that before closing out a conversation with a texter, I get a message that says “Thank you so much for doing this,” or, “I don’t feel so hopeless anymore.” In training, we refer to helping someone in crisis as helping them move “from a hot moment to a cool calm,” and it’s always an amazing feeling to see that your words have helped someone feel better and helped them make a plan for ways they can continue to feel better, even if it’s just for the next 24 hours.

This ongoing volunteer experience has been unlike anything I’ve ever done, and it has made an exceptionally positive impact on me. The company is constantly changing to be better and more efficient, and it only makes my volunteering experience more positive. I’ve learned so much from being a Crisis Counselor, and I hope you consider becoming one yourself.

For more information on volunteering with Crisis Text Line, visit crisistextline.org/volunteer.

Alex is a junior Creative Writing Major and Music Minor at Agnes Scott College. She likes exploring, sad music, and all things literary.

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