The Challenge


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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.
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 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? 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.  From our soft launch, where we've done almost no marketing, we've found we've already had good traction.  We've helped more than 1,000 teens so far.  
  • 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.  
  • How will the data or information you use or create be made open?
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.  We’re developing deep partnerships where we jointly work on studies with external partners, and we’re also planning on publishing insights from our ongoing work that will be open, available, and easily understandable. 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 and potential media partners like MTV.  
  • What will you make or do in this project?
Best news: Crisis Text Line now exists! We launched in Chicago and El Paso last month and have already had our first 1,000 users.  We are now preparing for our wide-scale national launch so that we can ensure that all teens, no matter where they are, what time it is, or what issues they face, can get the support they need to overcome their life’s challenges.  We are in the process of developing our national marketing strategy, which will include leveraging donated media (digital and traditional), engaging celebrity ambassadors with powerful personal stories, utilizing partnerships with carriers and phone manufacturers, and maximizing the use of our and our partners' existing channels.   
  • 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 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 the program.  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 up counselor capacity, get the word out to teens about the service, invest in our data storage and analysis infrastructure, and build out our analytics, evaluation, and development staff capacity.  
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


Join the conversation and post a comment.

Julie Ann Read

January 22, 2014, 14:26PM
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!

Mary Lopez

January 22, 2014, 14:00PM
Bullying, teen depression and teen suicide are at a crisis point in our country. Often social media, as you suggest, is too public and can be leave the teen in crisis feeling even more distressed after posting for help. Your program can bring the teen crisis line into the 21st century. The data if combined with GIS systems can help identify crisis clusters. Hopefully this generation will help erase the stigma many before them have faced for asking for help. Your program is a great start!


January 22, 2014, 14:16PM
Wow, thanks Mary! We completely agree. Since our program started, we've noticed teens are often more open about discussing their problems via text. Many are reaching out for help for the very first time. For people who are nervous to seek out mental health support because of the stigma in our society, Crisis Text Line has become a great first step to introduce the idea of speaking to a counselor - using the medium teens are most comfortable with: text. We really appreciate your support!

Jen March

January 21, 2014, 23:27PM
I am the oldest of 15 siblings, most of which are teenagers and I know one thing for certain, teenagers need a support TEAM. The anonymity of this crisis text option is a perfect way to support them without exposing them. One of my sisters recently came out to our family and she said she has known for years and it was a group of people that she met on-line in a chat room for teens, that gave her the courage to talk to tell her family and peers. Young people have so many questions and need so much support, it seems like this would make a huge difference in so many lives.


January 22, 2014, 13:43PM
Thanks so much for your support, Jen! And congrats to your sister. :) We're incredibly happy that young people are behind our idea and feel open to reaching out for support via text. "A huge difference in so many lives" - that's the plan! We're aiming to be as widely known as 9-1-1 for young people in crisis, so that all teens can get the support they need in order to overcome life's challenges.

Karthik Naralasetty

December 03, 2013, 12:14PM
A wonderful cause backed by amazing team. Please vote and let the best idea win!

Maura Keaney

September 21, 2013, 12:31PM
Thanks for your submission. The teen population certainly is in need of additional supports. Would you envision any parental permissions or other issues that you may encounter working with this age cohort?


September 26, 2013, 10:14AM
Hi Maura, Thanks for your support! There are a number of issues that youth face, and so we're working with an advisory board and a network of partners with deep expertise in working with youth.
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