On Tuesday, June 16th, a new free text service launches for people in distress and seeking support. The Crisis Text Line is a 24-hour texting service that has been at a pilot stage since last September.
There are already long-established listening services in Ireland for people experiencing mental health struggles or abuse, such as the Samaritans, Childline and Women's Aid. What Ian Power, chief executive of Crisis Text Line says distinguishes this new helpline is that the text-based service is available 24/7. "Also, a lot of rural areas don't have broadband, so we can reach those people via text," he explains.
The service is receiving 100 per cent of its funding from the Health Service Executive – an annual sum of €900,000. There are currently 15 full-time paid staff and 18 part-time. Some 300 volunteers around the country have received a period of online training and are also working for the service. They are required to be Garda vetted and provide references.
Due to the texting nature of the platform, Power expects that the core age of people who access it will be between 16 and 34. During the pilot period, the service was contacted by almost 4,000 people. “People were asked to fill out a survey afterwards,” he explained. This included questions about age, gender identification and location. Some 20 per cent (around 800 people), responded. Two thirds of those were female.
While those contacting the service – which expects to support more than 50,000 people a year when fully established – use mobile phones to text in (50808), the staff and volunteers monitor and answer texts via a web browser. Paid staff monitor most of the hours between 1am and 7am. Crisis Text Line’s goal is to respond to every new texter within five minutes.
Power reports that the average length of time a person will spend during the text exchange is long; between 45 minutes to an hour. It can go to three hours. “We are an active listening service,” he says. Their aim and motto is to bring people from “a hot moment to a cool calm”.
Power also explains that staff and volunteers “intervene” once the text exchange goes beyond 20 minutes, to ask if the texter is having “thoughts of suicide”. There is a reminder on the web browser at the 20-minute mark of the exchange to prompt the question, if it hadn’t been already asked. There is no set script that the people manning the service use. Power explains the question varies between, “Have you have any thoughts of suicide?” to “Have you had thoughts of death or dying recently?”
Given that the average length of text exchanges are much longer than that, it appears almost all people are asked this question. “There is no risk in asking the question,” he says. “All the evidence says, including that from the HSE, is that there is no risk in asking someone if they have contemplated suicide. It is a way to identify risk.”
One of the volunteers who has been involved with the service at its pilot stage is Caitlyn Grant (20).
So what kinds of things have people been texting her in distress about?
“Covid,” Grant says. “People being anxious because they can’t see friends and family. Loneliness. Isolation. General anxiety. Domestic abuse.” Grant had one exchange at 1am with a texter who told her they wanted to die. After 90 minutes of texting back and forth, the texter told her he was taking a taxi to a doctor.
Does she know what happened next, given that most doctor services are not open at 2am? In common with other listening support services, they just don’t know how people’s stories end after the initial contact. “No, we never know what happens next,” she says. “We just try to bring people from a hot moment to a cool calm.”