Crisis hotlines turn to texting to engage teens in need of help

Some psychologists worry tone of voice, context missing from text conversations

ORLANDO, Fla. - Parents today remember talking with friends for hours on the phone. Now, teens text constantly.

While it may seem like a bad habit, crisis and counseling centers are using it to their advantage and connecting with teens in trouble.

[WEB EXTRA: Text for help]

"I think it could be very useful in emergency situations," said Orlando resident Susan Maur.

Maur and her daughter, Danielle, said they can think of various scenarios where these high-tech hotlines could come in handy.

"If you were in an abusive situation and maybe you couldn't pick up the phone and call somebody because you're afraid, you could be heard you might be able to text somebody for help," continued Maur.

In fact counseling centers across the country are starting to offer "text for help hotlines."

Local 6 found assistance via text message available for numerous problems, including peer pressure, depression, relationship issues and bullying.

The National Dating Abuse Helpline said it receives more than 850 texts a month.

"It was amazing to me to hear young people say this is the most private way for them to communicate," said Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Dating Abuse Helpline.

But hotline staff admit it's challenging to give concise advice in a short text and often send links to websites with more information.

"There's always going to be that missing nuance when you're not hearing the tone of someone's voice," said Nicole Seligman, an advocate with the National Dating Abuse Helpline.

There are other concerns about this approach to getting help. Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula said texting for help is a powerful way to reach teens and even adults.

But because it's so new, mental health professionals need to create some basic guidelines.

"We can get so easily swept away in new technologies we forget that there are some factors in there that can really harm our ability to do our job as well as we can," said Durvasula.

Durvasula said she's concerned about potential digital dangers like texts for help that don't get through, keeping messages confidential using secure networks and crisis centers' protocols in emergencies.

Ray-Jones said they've got a plan for that at the national dating abuse helpline.

"If someone sends us a text message and they are in the throes of a violent situation, we're going to advise them to call 911," said Ray-Jones. "If 911 is not an option for them, we are going to talk about, 'Can you get to a safe place?'"

"It seems like it would be a definite second strategy to get out of a dangerous situation," said Maur.

Soon, you'll be able to text to 911. The Federal Communications Commission is requiring cell phone providers to enable consumers to text 911 by the end of the year.

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