Eating disorder crises spike on Mondays. Substance abuse is the worst at five o’clock in the morning. If someone texts a crying face emoji or the word “Tylenol,” be aware—these can be predictors of suicide risk.

Those at Crisis Text Line (CTL) keep such things in mind as they respond to the thousands of text messages that come in from teenagers in distress every day. The reasons for why people seek help span the board (“If it’s a crisis to you, it’s a crisis to us,” the website states). Loneliness, bullying, LGBTQ+ issues, self-harm, sexual abuse, scary stuff in the news. There’s been a spike in texts after every widely publicized mass shooting. In the hours after the presidential election, the crisis line saw eight times the normal volume of messages. There was a surge when Zayn left One Direction.

The goal for the thousands of counselors, all volunteers who’ve completed 30 hours of web-based training, is to take texters “from a hot moment of crisis to a cool, calm moment,” Turner explains. They want to help people develop a plan for self-care, and find resources that focus on their specific needs. If the counselor or supervisor cannot deescalate the texter, and the individual is actively suicidal with an ideation plan (for instance, they have a gun and a timeframe), CTL will call the local 911 emergency services. Such “active rescues” happen 15 to 20 times per day.

Other CTL data points that are important for parents, teachers and school officials to know:

  • Self-harm is reported most frequently by texters who are 13 and younger.
  • Texters ages 12 or younger who identify as Middle Eastern report being bullied more than any other demographic group.
  • Young texters identifying as straight black men are 35% more likely to tell a CTL counselor that they’ve never asked for help before, compared to the general population of texters ages 24 or younger.
  • 47.3% of student texters identify as LGBTQ+.

Turner shared with me what makes a text conversation helpful and supportive to someone in crisis, and what doesn’t. Here’s what we all can learn from CTL crisis counselors.

Don’t Define What a Crisis Is for Another Person

It’s not about a person’s circumstance, but about his or her response, Turner explains. “Where one person potentially handles a very stressful week of work and family and balancing, that same set of circumstances can be unmanageable for another person,” she says. It’s important to be empathetic, non-judgmental and non stigmatizing. Listen to whatever it is they need to talk about.

Don’t Ask Too Many Questions in a Row

That makes people feel put on the spot, Turner says.

Don’t Make Promises About the Future

“We can’t promise something’s going to get better,” Turner says. “We can only reflect the strength that an individual has to get through a situation. I have no control over whether your parents are going to continue to yell at you. But I can tell you, ‘You’re very brave and strong for reaching out to us tonight.’”

Do Draw from Your Experience, But Don’t Make It About You

CTL does not encourage volunteer counselors to share any personal information. What they do encourage them to do, however, is use their own experiences, perhaps the traumatic ones, as expertise in formulating questions for the texter. Again, empathy.

Do Explore the Coping Strategies The Person Has Used Before

“We help people to identify their strengths and look at the coping strategies they have already that they can use in this certain situation,” Turner says. This helps the texter remember that they’ve gotten through rough times before, and they can do so again.

Crisis Text Line serves anyone, in any type of crisis, for free, 24/7. If you are experiencing a crisis, text 741741 from anywhere in the United States.


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