How One Startup Uses Texting Data To Save Lives

Crisis Text Line meets people where they are: on theirphones.

How One Startup Uses Texting Data To Save Lives

Anna Walters

Crisis Text Line meets people where they are: on their phones.

In 2011, Nancy Lublin was the CEO of DoSomething.org, a nonprofit that mobilizes young people to volunteer via text message prompts. For every call to action they sent out — asking teens to run food drives, send valentines to the elderly, etc.— they’d receive a few dozen responses that had nothing to do with volunteering — texts that were simply cries for help.

One message in particular stood out:

“He won’t stop raping me.

It’s my dad.

He told me not to tell anyone.

R U There?”

DoSomething.org had no protocol for how to deal with this. They improvised a response, sending the texter contact information for RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). But Nancy knew they had to do more.

After many sleepless nights, she had a realization: If people are going ask for help via text, there needs to be a hotline by text. And so the Crisis Text Line, a free 24/7 service providing immediate assistance to those in crisis, was born.

“We’re not a suicide line,” says Nancy. “We’re here for all of it.”

From anxiety and relationship issues to depression and self harm, Crisis Text Line’s mission is simple: to take people from a “hot moment” to a “cool calm.” If Crisis Counselors are unable to de-escalate a situation or feel the texter is in imminent danger, they call in emergency services.

After launching in Chicago and El Paso in Aug. 2013, the text line went viral. Within four months, with zero marketing efforts, texters began reaching out from all 295 area codes in the United States. Since then, Crisis Text Line has processed a total of 31 million messages.

Using Data To Help More People

Crisis Text Line’s data scientists analyzed 20 million of these texts, looking for clues that could help counselors quickly determine which messages will result in an active rescue. What they found was surprising: Words like “ibuprofen,” “Tylenol” and “aspirin” indicated a higher risk than the seemingly more obvious “die,” “overdose” or “suicide.” The difference? “Ibuprofen” and related words show that a texter isn’t just thinking about suicide — they have the means to go through with it within reach.

Sometimes, images speak even louder than words. The analysis found that the crying sad face emoji is four times more likely to result in an active rescue than the word “suicide.”

Crisis Text Line uses this data to work smarter. They put high-risk keywords into an algorithm. Texts with those words are then marked orange and brought to the top of the queue for the quickest response.

“When a texter is at imminent risk and they’re also unwilling to come up with a safety plan, that is when an active rescue is initiated and that’s when emergency services are called,” Hira Raja, Crisis Counselor Trainer, tells Dose.

Although deescalation is the goal, interventions have saved lives.

“Yesterday we did 18 active rescues,” says Nancy. “That’s 18 families that today would’ve had a very different day.”

Sharing Findings With The Public

“The purpose of our data is to serve our users, to serve people in crisis,” Bob Filbin, Chief Data Scientist for Crisis Text Line, tells Dose. “But I think there’s a whole second layer of impact [with] crisistrends.org.”

This publicly accessible website allows users to explore a wealth of data, including the most common keywords associated with issues like sexual abuse and bereavement, and a real-time map of crises across the country. By making their findings open to all, Crisis Text Line increases its impact beyond texters.

One university wants to tackle the issue of child abuse by looking at the words most often associated with this underreported crime.

“If we can figure out what those words are then you can turn those words out to pediatricians and principals and you can help more kids,” says Nancy.

Crisis Text Line’s data analysis goes beyond just keywords. It also looks at the time and location of texts to reach important conclusions about mental health. Their real-time map of crises across the country shows that Monday is the worst day for eating disorders, 5am is the roughest time for substance abusers and Montana has the highest rate of suicidal ideation. Identifying these trends helps highlight unseen problems and push help where it is needed most.

Serving The Underserved

“Each conversation is pretty rich — over 40 messages exchanged,” says Bob. “And we’re reaching a traditionally underserved population.”

While people reach out from every demographic in all area codes, texters skew rural, poor and young. Based on optional post-conversation surveys, they’ve found that roughly 75% of those who contact the Crisis Text Line are under 25 years old. Forty-seven percent do not identify as heterosexual. Ten percent are under age 13, and 5% identify as American Indian.

Across the board, data shows the Crisis Text Line is reaching people with traditionally lower access to mental health resources. And although texting may seem impersonal to some, the anonymity helps people open up in meaningful ways. Sixty-five percent of texters say they’ve shared something with the text line that they’ve never shared with another human being.

“This is the largest mental health data set that has ever been collected, stored, and analyzed. It’s another thing in the arsenal that we need to combat mental illness,” says Nancy. “And there’s so much more work to do.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, text “hello” to 741741. Even if you don’t need help now, save the number in your phone. You never know when it might be exactly what you need to get you through.

If you’re inspired by the work of Crisis Text Line and would like to help out, sign up to become a volunteer Crisis Counselor by visiting crisistextline.org/volunteer.

“We love our volunteers,” says Nancy, “the more volunteers the more capacity we have to help people.”

All images by Dose’s Antonio Manaligod.