Texting That Saves Lives

Teens in crisis can receive free help at their fingertips, 24/7. This service will bring a data-informed approach to crisis services by creating the largest database on teens in crisis in the country.

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Millions of teens are quietly suffering every day. They struggle with bullying, homophobia, mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and more. Many teens in crisis feel like they have no one to turn to and nowhere to go. The solution is beautifully simple. Crisis Text Line provides effective and secure counseling and referrals to teens in crisis via a medium they already use and trust: text.

Hotlines are available for at-risk teens via toll-free numbers and live chat, but the #1 preferred form of communication for young people is SMS.  We reach teens in the setting they are most comfortable in.  Crisis Text Line (CTL), now in its beta version, is a way for teens who need help to use their mobile phones to access free support 24/7.  

Crisis centers face significant challenges when trying to reach teens:

1. It’s difficult to follow-up with teens.  Teens can be hard to reach, in order to make sure they receive the follow-up care they need.  They are particularly reluctant to reach out for help in-person.

2. Privacy is hard to secure using existing methods.  Phone calls aren't discreet. Social media is inherently public.  

3. Hotlines are becoming less relevant for young people as teens shy away from phone use.  In 2009, only 30-38% of teens used phones every day.

4. Many teens have limited web access. 12% of teens have no access to the Internet at home, and another 10% have only dial-up Internet. These teens often rely on shared computers in schools and in public libraries, which makes it difficult for the "live chat" offered by many hotlines to reach these teens.

Our solution is beautifully simple.

1. Provide crisis intervention services and referrals to teens through texting with live, trained counselors.

2. Text messages offer a discreet, familiar, and accessible form of communication for teens.  This gives teens with any mobile phone with SMS capability the ability to access support through CTL.  

3. Our empathetic messages are reviewed by mental health experts as well as rigorously A/B tested.  We're continuing to evolve the language and approach we use in a thoughtful and nuanced way, in order to better deliver emotional support via SMS. 

4. We conduct data analysis of follow-up messages, strategies, and outcomes for teens, which can lead to innovations that will improve prevention, support and long-term care.   

CTL is innovative in three ways: it will reach more teens than ever before, bring a data-informed approach to crisis services, and provide follow-up support that will ultimately reduce teens' need for mental health services.

Because CTL will be the nation’s first free, 24/7 text messaging hotline, it has the opportunity to reach more teens than ever before. For teens, texting is the number one form of digital communication; according to the Pew Research Center, the average teen now exchanges over 5,000 texts per month. Also, texting is private; through CTL, teens can access help without fear of family or classmates overhearing them.  We're also working on secure messaging, to ensure that only the teen sees the messages from their conversation with CTL.  

What moves CTL from a good idea to a great idea is the data. CTL will have the largest database on teens in crisis in the country, which will be used to inform academic research and practitioner interventions and to measure the effectiveness of our programs. While sharing data, teens' privacy is our number one concern. To protect teens' personal information, CTL will follow privacy guidelines instituted at the University of Michigan's ICPSR (Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research), the world's largest archive of computer-based data for the social sciences.

Finally, in a way never before possible via phone call or online chat, CTL will be able to engage with teens who use our service in the long-term - to assess how they are feeling and to provide ongoing support when needed. Ultimately, this will reduce teens' need for long-term mental health services, thus reducing strain on an already stretched system.

  • Who is working on the project? Who are your partners?
Our staff is made up of individuals with experience in social enterprise, data science, and building technology products for social impact.   We also have a strong board of directors and National Advisory Board made up of experts in the fields of youth mental health, hotline management, and organizational development.  We work with accredited, experienced crisis centers in Boston, Miami, and Seattle to ensure Crisis Text Line is staffed 24/7, and we work with our Youth Advisory Board and our partner  DoSomething.org to ensure we're incorporating the latest insights on how to best to communicate with teens.  
  • How do you know there is demand for this project?
DoSomething.org texts with 1.4 million teens every week; two years ago, they received an unsolicited text from one of their members saying “He won’t stop raping me. He told me not to tell anyone. It’s my dad. Are you there?”. Teens are looking for a place to turn to that they can trust via text- we are responding to that need.  We quietly launched by letting 4,000 young people in both El Paso, TX and Chicago, IL that we existed in August 2013. Today, we have texted with users in every area code and zip code in the country. We've exchanged over 3.8 million messages. This organic growth proves the high demand for Crisis Text Line.
  • How is your project different from what already exists?
There are some national phone-based lines, and a few text lines that are focused on a specific issue or region and generally are only open during specific time windows.  Crisis Text Line is the first nation-wide, 24/7 text line that supports teens across all of the issues that they face.   We are also uniquely dedicated to determining how to measure the concrete impact that SMS-based crisis intervention can have and committed to sharing our learnings and results.  In addition, our platform is built to provide the best possible experience for counselors. This includes rigorous supervision, simple post-conversation informationg logging, and counselor to counselor support through a chat function. 
  • How will the data or information you use or create be made open?
Our data is transparent and available to anyone at crisistrends.org. We’re committed to analyzing and sharing our large, real-time data sets and collaborating with researchers and practitioners to accelerate the discovery and adoption of innovations in supporting youth.  As we scale, we’re developing deep partnerships where we jointly work on studies with external partners. We're going to share findings and best practices in peer reviewed journals, presentations in local communities, and grassroots campaigns with local partners like nonprofits.
  • What will you make or do in this project?
Best news: Crisis Text Line is live! We've used 2014 to build and quietly launch. In 2015, we'll focus on scale - helping as many young people in crisis as possible while mainting excellent rigor.  We are in the process of developing a growth strategy, including tech and data products and features that will allow exponential growth.
  • How can others learn from/build on what you do?
We’re building a national network of crisis centers and youth-serving organizations that will receive tailored data-reporting as well as access to emerging and best practices informed by direct, real-time experience of the national network and by rigorous research.  Additionally, we’ll be publishing and sharing our insights more broadly, so that everyone in the youth mental health space, and beyond, can benefit from our learnings.  
  • How much do you think it will cost?
We're raising $3.5M for the coming year, so that we can make the necessary investments to scale..  Roughly 40% of this goes to counselor costs, 30% to staff costs, and the rest toward our data and tech infrastructure and software and other expenses.  
  • How would you use News Challenge funds?
We'd like to use the News Challenge funds to scale our counselor capacity. This means growing our services to help more kids in crisis. Additionally, we'd invest in our data storage and analysis infrastructure, and build out our analytics, evaluation, and development staff capacity.

  • Who are the users of your project, and what have you learned from them so far?
Teens in crisis across the country are the users of this project, as well as counselors who have been trained on our platform. So far, we've learned alot from our texters. Time, day, location and topic information is available at crisistrends.org. Here are a few additional highlights:
  • They state facts and by the third text we usually identify the issue at hand
  • They're comfortable with text. Not one user has asked us to speak on the phone
  • Anxiety is most prominent on Wednesdays, followed by Sunday.
We're continually learning from our counselors as well:
  • Because we use text, 1 counselor can have a conversation with 3-5 texters as one time
  • Auto-populating post-conversation forms makes for an enjoyable process
  • Sharing counselor specific data is motivational
  • What are the obstacles to implementing the idea and how will you adress them?
With CTL live, we face a few major obstacles and are currently adressing them:
  • High demand - a great obstacle to have, we're focused on scaling this year. We're curretly reasessing our partnership model.
  • Repeat texters - we exist to help teens in crisis, not serve as primary or ongoing care. We're adressing this with comprehensive testing and exploration of comps.
  • Continued quality - we're scaling strategically, with input from our Board of Directors and Advisory Board in order to maintain our excellence and high quality of care.
  • How will you spread the word about your project?
Because of the organic, word-of-mouth marketing that has already occured, and the subsequent high demand for Crisis Text Line, we're currently focused on scale without marketing our service to texters. However, we will soon be marketing to potential volunteer counselors. We'll do so with through partnerhsips with:
  • Influencers- Youtube personalities with engaged followings
  • Corporations - We'll work with corporate partners looking for employee volunteer opportunities to recruit, select, train, and engage remote counselors for our volunteer program
  • Local enterprises - We'll team up with university and city programs to create cohorts of local counselors.

Describe your project in one sentence.

Using best-in-class technology and data-informed practices, we provide effective and secure crisis intervention support to teens via a medium they already use and trust: text.

Who is the audience for this project? How does it meet their needs?

Young people nationwide (ages 13-25) receive free, 24/7 access to crisis intervention and referrals from trained counselors.

What does success look like?

For teens in crisis, CTL is a trusted resource that is as well known as 9-1-1. For the world, CTL is the pre-eminent source for data about young people in crisis, which informs more effective social programs, stronger nonprofit practitioners, better academic research, well-aligned funding priorities, well-informed legislation, and more effective school policies.

Your Location

New York, NY, USA


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Photo of Julie Ann

As a mom and former youth ministry worker I understand the "messiness" of teen's lives ... and how important it is for them to feel connected to adults who care. Harnessing the power of technology for this demographic is huge, and using text assures the teens that CTL "gets it". As data gets shared on a national level I can see how powerful it would be for a teen-in-trouble to be able to text someone, get real-time help, and then be given information about local in-person resources. Brilliant!

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