April 16, 2020
By Alyssa Haywoode
BOSTON – When Nancy Lublin and Bob Filbin launched the Crisis Text Line in 2013, they weren’t trying to battle a global pandemic.
They were trying to put mental health services where they would be easy to get to, on people’s cell phones. Help, thanks to the crisis line, was only a text away.
Teenagers who might not want to be overheard at home or at school could text. Adults could text. There is no charge, so no one has to have health insurance. Financial support comes from foundations like the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, individual donors, and partnerships with companies like YouTube and Netflix.
People began reaching out through texts. Trained, volunteer Crisis Counselors responded, providing support and making referrals for anxiety, depression, relationship struggles, grief, self harm, physical abuse, and sexual abuse.
To get help today, people can text HOME to 741741 or send a message on Facebook Messenger.
Crisis Text Line grew. It showed up in online searches. It was shared organically on social media and in conversations. The service reached young people and people with less disposable income. Since then there have been more than 140 million messages.
Then COVID-19 hit.
“We started to see a surge in traffic on March 16th,” Bob Filbin, Chief Data Scientist and Co-founder at Crisis Text Line, says. “There were two waves. The first wave was anxiety and stress about the disease that mapped to places like New York and Washington state where COVID-19 cases were increasing. Normally, anxiety and stress make up about 35 percent of our conversations, now it’s 70 percent.”
“The second wave was a byproduct of COVID-19, the fallout of being quarantined and on lockdown.”
The usual average of 3,000 texts a day jumped, because of COVID-19, to highs of 4,500 per day.
But it turns out that the Crisis Text Line is ideally suited for a pandemic. People who are stuck at home can text for support. Crisis Counselors who are stuck at home can reply. The organization added a coronavirus webpage. And its blog features posts called “Notes on Coronavirus: How is America Feeling?”
“One common pattern that we see in COVID-related texts is an opener like ‘this whole virus situation around the world is getting to me,’” Filbin says. “Or the language is vague, the texter isn’t saying they’re anxious. So, the Crisis Counselor’s first goal is active listening.”
A key strategy for Crisis Counselors is engaging in collaborative problem solving by helping texters’ find and use their own strengths.
“Often, part of the crisis for texters is that they feel their life is out of their control and that they don’t have the ability to change their situation. So Crisis Counselors will discuss strategies and praise texters for being open to new ideas. They’ll point out that this openness is a form of resiliency.”
To support Crisis Counselors, the Crisis Text Line sends a weekly newsletter about effective techniques for COVID-19 conversations.
“One pattern we’re finding is there’s so much uncertainty around this pandemic that it’s very different than other crises like hurricanes or earthquakes,” Filbin adds.
“Because this pandemic is so uncertain in terms of who it’s going to affect and how long it’s going to last, one technique our Crisis Counselors use is to put time bounds on problems. So a Crisis Counselor might say, ‘I hear that you’re feeling anxious about COVID, was there something that increased your anxiety or stress in particular today that we can talk about?’
“Crisis Counselors are also talking about time-framed solutions: what could help today or how to develop a three-day plan for managing anxiety. A Crisis Counselor might say, “What can you do to manage your anxiety today or this week?”
Some texters face extremely dire challenges. The percent of Asian-American texters has jumped from 5 percent to 10 percent, and they are texting about coronavirus-related bullying, harassment, and depression.
“We’re also seeing a 50 percent increase in sexual abuse issues compared to our other conversations and about a 100 percent increase in physical abuse issues compared to other conversations,” Filbin says.
Financial anxiety among texters is growing, especially among texters with low incomes. The crisis line is receiving more texts from people ages 45 to 64 who are also worried about their finances. And 18-to-24-year-olds are worried about losing entry-level jobs and shift work.
“We’re seeing 11 percent of our texters mention financial issues and associated issues of anxiety and depression, up from 4 percent. We expect that will continue to grow over time as COVID’s effects on the economy only grow.”
That grim, expected growth could last for years as the world finds its way through the COVID-19 crisis. To meet this long-term need, the Crisis Text Line is going to grow. More than 30 new staff members are being hired. And the organization is also dealing with a silver lining: in the midst of this crisis, there has been a surge of people volunteering to be Crisis Counselors. Instead of the usual 35 applications per day, there are 350 applications per day. And while Asian-Americans normally make up 11 percent of the applicants, they are now 24 percent of the pool.
“I think people are looking for meaningful things to do during the lockdown,” Filbin says, “and we’re one of the outlets for that.”
Applicants who go through a background check and are approved will then go through 30 hours of online training. They will also receive ongoing support from coaches.
And texters will find support for years to come.
“One of the biggest benefits of our structure is that we were we were ready for this moment,” Filbin says. “We were built for a response to something like COVID, where people are in their homes.”
“There are a lot of crisis centers that only have in-person counseling in their offices. But because we’re distributed, and people can volunteer from home, we’re open. We’re 24-seven, we’re growing, and we will continue to respond to this crisis.”