By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
Crisis hotlines have been around for decades. Created to prevent suicide, they offer a real lifeline to people in serious distress. Yet some who need that lifeline don’t want to talk.
Now people in crisis have another option, an online live chat service.
Volunteers of America Western Washington’s Care Crisis Response Services launched the service a year ago as part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. And in June, VOA set up its own local chat portal, www.carecrisischat.org.
“We have recognized that adolescents and young adults under-use phone crisis lines. They’re used to texting, not calling,” said Pat Morris, program director for Care Crisis Response Services at Volunteers of America Western Washington.
“Suicide is the third-highest cause of death for this age group,” Morris said. “We’ve known they’re in crisis but weren’t likely to reach out. A cloak of anonymity comes from being on a computer. It might be their first opportunity to be very honest, very candid.”
Since its start in March 2012, the online service based at VOA’s Everett facility has conducted more than 1,600 chats, Morris said. The program recently received a grant from the national Lifeline organization, funded by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, that will keep the chat service going for three years. Because of the $70,000 per year grant, starting Feb. 14 the program expanded from four hours on weekdays only to seven days a week. Online crisis chat hours are 3 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. — after-school time.
Anyone can still call the crisis lines, with a local or toll-free number, 24 hours a day. Callers, Morris said, “get one of our master’s level clinicians.” As part of the national Lifeline, the agency serving northwest Washington gets about 100,000 crisis calls each year.
Staffing for the online chat service is different than for the hotline. Clinical professionals oversee a team of about 25 volunteers trained as chat specialists. Many are students from area universities, schools affiliated with Everett Community College’s University Center. Some volunteer for college credit.
Volunteer training, Morris said, involves 16 hours of classroom instruction, 20 hours spent working with trained chat specialists and skills assessment.
Marci Bloomquist, a mental health counselor with a master’s degree, manages VOA’s online chat services. “We always have a master’s level clinician available for support if a chat visitor’s need is really acute,” Bloomquist said.
Bloomquist explained what happens during a chat, which begins with a few questions. “They fill out a pre-chat survey,” she said. The visitor provides their name or an alias, age and gender, and “what their main concern is — depression, anxiety, relationship, financial,” Bloomquist said. They are asked “Are you suicidal?” Answers can specify whether they currently feel that way or have in the past.
Bloomquist said about 60 percent of people coming to the chat site express suicidal thoughts, a figure higher than the agency expected. “We think it’s the anonymity. We find people are pretty forthcoming. We jump right in, assessing their risk,” she said.
The specialists question people about whether they can stay safe. Procedures are in place to quickly launch an active rescue. Internet service providers and police are part of that process, Morris said.
“An active rescue is relatively rare,” Morris said. In a year, she said, “we have done maybe a dozen.” Sometimes a chat visitor will ask for that help, she added.
Bloomquist said chats average 26 minutes long. The specialists are hearing from many teens. “The issues vary. It can be bullying at school, questioning sexuality, or sometimes it’s the first time they’re disclosing they’ve been molested or raped,” she said. Some reveal that they use cutting to deal with stress or depression.
“These chats are quite empowering,” Bloomquist said. “It’s helping them identify some of the coping skills they already have.” Simply writing can be therapeutic.
“It gives them a way to look at their problems objectively,” Morris said. “Typically they do have a solution, but they’re so caught up in emotion they can’t look at it. This allows some of that emotion to get out, and they say, ‘I guess I could do this or that.’”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crisis online chat
The crisis phone line is 425-258-4357 or 800-584-3578.
To learn more about volunteering for the program, email Pat Morris at email@example.com.