These Text Messages Save Lives

Why do I even exist?

This question looks benign here, mixed in with all these other words and bright colors. But for crisis counselors on the other end of a text line, this query has the immediate gravity of a “hot moment,” and it is the counselor’s job to move the asker back into a “cool calm.” This is the language used by Crisis Text Line (CTL), a free 24-7 crisis support hotline that anonymously connects texters with trained volunteer crisis counselors.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that only 1% of people who text in to the CTL need active rescue. It is incredible to understand that most of these crises, though immediate and often high risk, are de-escalated through an exchange of words alone — exchanges that are literally life saving.

These interventions are moderated by volunteers who have been rigorously trained in a specific model of crisis support. Their training emphasizes non-directives over affirmation and supports the person in crisis by listening and asking open-ended questions rather than guiding or using positive responses like we might do with friends or family.

In a 2015 article about the hotline in the New Yorker, Alice Gregory explains how CTL coaches its volunteers to respond:

1 | Open-ended questions are good, “why?” questions are bad.

2 | Techniques that are encouraged include tentafiers, validation, strength identification, and empathetic responses.

3 | People are naturally inclined to fill silences.

These principles align with “client-centered counseling,” an approach developed by American psychologist Carl Rogers in 1951. This method makes it the goal of the counselor to support the agency of the client by creating space for them to expand upon and explore their own directives in terms of what hurts and what is needed.

The relationship between speaking and agency can be a very simple one.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that 66% of people that text in to CTL share something via text with their crisis counselor that they’ve never told anyone else.

All these words, all this talk, teased out into reality, can be more than life saving, they can also be transformative — for both the client and the counselor.

My longtime friend Avery* nearly cried when our goldfish died. We were 22. As Avery explained it, there had been a tiny little life swimming around in our living room and then one day, all of a sudden, it was gone and our home had one less twinkle of life.

And I had just flushed it down the toilet like it was nothing!

Avery has taught me more than anyone what it means to truly cherish a life, no matter how small or gold or fishy or different.

In February of this year, Avery began training to be a volunteer crisis counselor at an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth. This was also around the same time that Avery, who is a trans and queer person, had begun their medical transition.

Over the madness of the holidays, nearly a year after all these new beginnings, I spoke to Avery about how being a volunteer has affected their approach to their own mental health care, and how we can all be better counselors to each other in our everyday lives. Avery initially signed on as a volunteer because they were interested in investing their energy and love for queer and trans youth into something immediately helpful, and they hoped that easing others’ pain around issues like transphobia and homophobia would help them ease their own in some way. Once they began the demanding training and then graduated to actually moderating real life crises, they immediately felt like they were having conversations they weren’t equipped for.

“Despite the months of training and support I got from the program,” Avery told me, “I felt like a fraud on the other end of the line, offering comfort to people where I had none myself. It was an important experience to me, and pushed me to actually understand questions I needed to figure out myself.”

That pesky little ailment we call “imposter syndrome” has played itself out in a generous handful of think pieces this year, though rarely in terms of caring for other people or within interpersonal relationships. There is something we feel we lack in emotionally demanding situations. And it can often be something deeply personal that holds us back from more fully being there for others.

“I think the questions that people would pose in our chats (‘Is this ever going to get better?’ ‘How am I supposed to go on with my life when I feel like everyone hates me?’ etc.) were articulated in such a simple and vulnerable way that I hadn’t been able to access intrapersonally,” says Avery. “It took hearing them from someone else and being put in a position where I was expected to have some type of response — not necessarily an answer — that made me finally think about them for myself.”

These exchanges threw Avery into a period of introspection, where they ended up working through some of their own personal crises that they hadn’t been able to dig up before.  

Avery tells me that, both in and out of crises, they prioritize harm reduction, acceptance, and empathy, and that giving someone a non-judgemental space is critical to facilitating someone’s path to self-acceptance and self-actualization.

“In any conversation, you can’t go in thinking you could possible know what is best for anyone else, and that has been a huge lesson for me. When you actually apply that idea, you realize how often you push your ideas of what is best on others, and it really frees you to be a better listener and a more accepting person in general, in and out of crises situations.”

It can be beautiful and surprising where a conversation can go when we stop thinking we know what anyone else should be doing (a judgement that only creates pressure) and rather grant people space to discover what they truly will.

*The name in this article has been changed. Crisis counselors are to remain anonymous.

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