Online youth crisis services in real time
Reprinted from "First Responders for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3 (2), pp. 30-31
A quick glance at the number and variety of distress lines and other services available across BC shows there are a lot of crisis services available for youth who need support—everything from drop-in centres to crisis lines. But the challenge for support and wellness groups, as with every other sector focused on youth, is to remain relevant and keep up with changing youth trends and demands.
This issue confronted the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of BC a few years ago. Despite successfully running a distress line that has served people of all ages and all communities for a number of decades, we began to notice that the number of youth callers was dropping off. Drastically.
We knew the problems youth are facing weren’t just going away. And it’s not like youth don’t have access to phones—anyone who walks past a high school or university can see cell phones in the hands of youth of all ages and backgrounds. So why weren’t they calling any more?
We consulted youth through focus groups to try to find the answer. They told us overwhelmingly that they wanted crisis support services available online. They pointed out that more and more youth are spending more time on the Internet and are using it as a first point of contact for information gathering and communication. To provide services that youth would actually use, they said, we’d have to adapt to their new way of communicating.
That’s when the Crisis Centre decided to create its web-based hotline for youth in distress: YouthInBC.com.
Admittedly, there are other types of youth-oriented support services on the Internet: webpages listing resources, sites offering open forums with group discussions, and services offering help via e-mail.
But what makes YouthInBC.com different is its live chat function. This service allows youth on our site to get confidential, nonjudgmental help one-on-one from our trained volunteers in real time. It’s the only service of its kind in Canada.
Sites that offer help on an e-mail basis, by their nature, are delayed in reaching the person in need. But experience has shown that people in distress who reach out for help need to receive it right away.
Open discussion forums can make it difficult to control content and a youth might not feel safe discussing their problems in front of a group. YouthInBC.com provides the safety and immediacy of a telephone distress line using the technology of today.
Youth are using the site’s chat function to get support for a whole range of issues. For example:
One youth wanted to know how to distance himself from friends who call him stupid all the time.
Another was on for nearly an hour, saying she’d been in a bad mood for no reason and was feeling the urge to take drugs and cut herself. She said she was suicidal most of the time and feared she was manic depressive.
Another was looking for help for her brother who had made a suicide attempt in the past. She was afraid her brother was going to kill himself that night.
Other Youth Websites
Our data indicates youth like these are coming to the service in greater numbers. When YouthInBC.com was launched in 2004, there were about 40 chats per month. That number has increased to more than 100 chats per month.
On top of that, youth are also sending e-mails requesting help during the hours of the day when the chat function is inactive.
And we’ve also noticed youth calls to our distress phone line have increased since YouthInBC.com began. This indicates to our staff that through the Internet channel provided by YouthInBC.com, young people are becoming comfortable with crisis services and are more willing to use other options like telephone distress lines.
Beyond the usage numbers and positive feedback from other agencies, we also know the website is working because of the response we’ve been getting from youth themselves. On average, YouthInBC.com receives one to two “thank-you” chats or e-mails every month from youth who have come to the service for support. We’re also regularly contacted by youth wanting to know if they can help with our service.
But running a live, web-based hotline also has its challenges. We know we need to increase our capacity to conduct more chats, because youth are being turned away due to limited resources. That means we need to add more volunteers and terminals to open more chats. We also are working on expanding the service from its current eight hours a day to 24. The Crisis Centre is also exploring the idea of making the YouthInBC.com software available to other crisis lines and support agencies to offer their own online services in their unique communities.
Another challenge is for volunteers to adapt to facilitating help by typing instead of talking over the phone. Some volunteers are initially concerned they won’t be able to read the youth’s tone from words on a screen. But they quickly learn to understand a chatter’s tone through the choice of words and the presentation of the text.
It is this ability of the volunteers to adapt to the changing realities of technology that best illustrates what the web-based hotline YouthInBC.com is about. It’s about seeing our way past the perceived obstacles of a new technology and realizing we have an opportunity to enhance the way we offer help. Evolving our methods of support to keep pace with the type of communication used by youth allows us to remain not only relevant to them, but accessible when they need us—now and into the future.
About the authorRobin is Communications Coordinator at the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of BC.