Crisis hotlines have never been so easy to access: there are phone numbers, text numbers, numbers supporting folks with disabilities or specific racial/sexual/gender identities—you can even reach help through Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. But what happens when you’re facing a crisis and wondering: Should I reach out? And if I do, what happens next?
As a year-long volunteer crisis counselor at Crisis Text Line (CTL), I have the inside scoop on what goes on behind the scenes at one particular service. Read on to demystify the process.
Will I be talking to a real human? Yes, you will. At Crisis Text Line, all crisis responders are of the human variety. And supporting those humans are more humans—there’s a team of supervisors whose sole job is to make sure all convos run smoothly and answer any tough issues a counselor might encounter.
What if I’m not suicidal but I feel like I need help—can I still text in? Yes; it’s not called Crisis Text Line for nothing! In fact, most texters are not suicidal, but are struggling with other crises: a panic attack, grief, substance abuse, struggles with school, loneliness... they hear it all.
What if I am suicidal? Every texter who reaches out will get personally “risk assessed”—even those who say they are texting because of a friend in crisis. The risk assessment goes over the following criteria: thoughts, plans, means, and timeframe. If a texter doesn’t currently have thoughts of suicide, the risk assessment stops there. If a texter has suicidal thoughts, plans for how they might kill themselves, accessible means to kill themselves, and a timeline that is within 48 hours, that person is considered to be at imminent risk. If a counselor flags an imminent risk, their supervisor will oversee the conversation to offer extra support.
If I’m suicidal, will the cops just show up at my door? No. The goal of crisis counseling is to work with each texter toward finding a healthy alternative to suicide. If a texter can agree to collaborating on a coping plan (for example: putting away harmful objects, talking to a parent, getting some sleep), then the counselor’s job is done (after recapping the plan, reflecting the texter’s strengths, and perhaps sending an additional resource or two). The resounding majority of imminent risk texts fall under this category. If not, then emergency services will be contacted—but every effort is made to achieve a texter’s consent to do so first.
What if I have a crisis at night when I can’t get in touch with my therapist? CTL is a 24/7, free service. All you need is a device to text with. That said, the conversation flows much smoother if you are able put your attention toward it and not be simultaneously doing other things. If a counselor hasn’t gotten a response from you within 7 minutes, they will send a nudge to check if you’re still available to chat. After a couple more minutes hearing no response, they’ll nudge you again. After that, they’ll (politely) close out the convo with you. You can always text back, though.
If I text in more than once, will I get the same crisis counselor? Realistically, no—there are literally thousands of CTL counselors around the globe, and they’re all volunteers. Some counselors will introduce themselves with their real first name, while some use a pseudonym. Because CTL is for short-term crisis counseling only, the goal is not to go over an exhaustive history with each person (like you do in therapy), but rather to focus on the here-and-now of a texter’s heated moment, and get them to a cool calm.
Wait—these are just volunteers? Can I trust them? Because this is a free service, you will be talking with unpaid volunteers. However, each counselor went through extensive steps to get there: a vetting process with references, and a 30-hour training that they must pass.
Is this anonymous? Yes. While some counselors might ask you for your name sometime during the convo, they are doing so to be friendly and personable. If for some reason a counselor believes that they might know their texter in real life, they notify their supervisor and transfer the convo immediately (and seamlessly—you wouldn’t even know a transfer has occurred!). Confidentiality is their credo, and no one will even see your phone number—you’ll be labeled something like “Anonymous 5928571.”
What if I just need some information? That’s fine! CTL has a ton of online resources, like a DBT workbook, a visual meditation tool, and a chat space for LGBTQ youth. These can be found on CTL’s website right now! If you do text in for resource assistance, you’ll still get risk assessed, but a counselor will be more than happy to personally locate the right mental health resource for you. You can immediately stop the chat at any time by simply texting STOP (though an appreciative “goodbye” will definitely make your counselor feel warm and fuzzy!).
I actually had a really good experience with my crisis counselor—what can I do to let them know? At the end of your convo, you will get an automated text asking if you’d like to complete a feedback survey. That’s where you can later tell your counselor just how much their help meant to you (though it will be redacted of any identifying details for your protection). Receiving positive texter feedback means the world to your counselor—and keeps them coming back for “all the feels,” late night after late night!