Published Online: February 7, 2012
Published in Print: February 8, 2012, as Teen Callers Turn to Texting for Help on Minn. Suicide Hotline

Teen Callers Turn to Texting on Minn. Suicide Hotline

Minnesota's suicide call center is getting as many cellphone text messages from teenagers in a day as it used to get phone calls from teens in a month.

That's because the state's Carlton County applied for and received a $1.44 million federal grant to roll out a seven-county texting hotline for suicide prevention that is being promoted in schools.

"We looked at recent suicides, and we looked at what kids were doing prior to those suicides," said Dave Lee, the director of the Carlton County Public Health and Human Services Department. "They were texting people or they were on Facebook."

The texting hotline has already been promoted in all Carlton County school districts and the Fond du Lac Ojibwe schools. The Carlton County public-health and human-services agency is in the midst of meeting with other districts, American Indian reservations, and mental-health centers in St. Louis, Cook, Lake, Aitkin, Itasca, and Koochiching counties to help them deploy the new service.

When work is complete this school year, about 22,000 middle and high school students are expected to be in possession of both texting and telephone numbers to the state suicide hotline.

Northeastern Minnesota has one of the highest suicide rates in the state among all ages, Mr. Lee said, and data from a 2010 Minnesota Student Survey shows an "alarming rate" of suicidal tendencies and behavioral-health issues among area youths.

In St. Louis County, for example, eight high school freshmen and six seniors said they had attempted suicide in the last year, and 37 freshmen and 29 seniors said they had had suicidal thoughts in the last year. In Carlton County, seven freshmen and three seniors said they had attempted suicide in 2010.

"There have been numerous attempts at trying to improve education, awareness, and response," Mr. Lee said. "And we haven't impacted the rate."

That's why Carlton County applied for—with its texting proposal—a rarely earned grant that Minnesota has tried for unsuccessfully four times before. In 2011, it finally received a three-year Garrett Lee Smith Suicide Prevention grant from the federal government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The texting program, which is also in use in Nevada, allows people to text "life" to 839863 and be connected with a counselor at a computer.

Conversations last anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, said Traci Churi, the local text coordinator at the Richfield, Minn., Crisis Connection.

"We have figured out an hour text session equates to a 10- to 15-minute phone call," she said, "because of the time it takes to go back and forth."

Before rolling out the texting program, the center was getting roughly three calls a month from teenagers, and now it gets about three texts a day, primarily from the Carlton County area. Since the program started keeping track in November, about 160 people have texted counselors. That number is expected to grow as more teens in Northeastern Minnesota learn the number.

"We have finally lowered the threshold enough so that kids are willing to reach out," Mr. Lee said. "Some, we try to move from texting to a phone call and they said, 'We won't do it.' As soon as we built a better communication tool, kids seized it."

'Beyond Tomorrow'

Through texting, teenagers "are reaching out and talking about tough subjects they weren't talking to anyone about," Ms. Churi said, including challenging relationships, maltreatment, aggressive feelings, and bullying. "We can de-escalate that before it turns into … a violent situation."

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The biggest reason for texting so far has been relationship issues, including breakups, Mr. Lee said. "They are traumatized. They can't envision that their life will get any better," he said. "All of a sudden, they can't see beyond tomorrow."

The counselors attempt to move texters to a place where they might talk face to face with someone from their area. And if a situation becomes an emergency, counselors work with local law enforcement to find the texter. That has happened four times since the program began.

Meghann Condit, the grant coordinator for the program, goes to schools to educate students with presentations and posters. Students receive a glow-in-the-dark bracelet with both phone and text numbers to the suicide call center if they plug the text number into their phones.

At the high schools, Ms. Condit is working to help form student groups that will continue to educate fellow students about the program.

Vol. 31, Issue 20, Page 8

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