The September Issues

CRISIS TEXT LINE

CRISIS TEXT LINE, A NONPROFIT FOUNDED BY NANCY LUBLIN AND DEDICATED TO UTILIZING TECH AND DATA TO HELP THOSE IN CRISIS, IS AT THE FOREFRONT OF THE RAPID EVOLUTION OF DIGITAL CIVIL SOCIETY. THE ARTICLE EXPLORES GLOBAL MENTAL HEALTH, THE PROFOUND REACH OF THE INTERNET, AND HOW THE PERVASIVENESS OF TECH MAY BE USED TO HELP OUR COMMUNITIES, INCREASE AWARENESS, AND UNDERSCORE COMPASSION.

photographed by JODY ROGAC in NYC on august 8, 2018
makeup JENNY KANAVAROS
shot at JACK STUDIOS

words THEA SASS-AINSWORTH
illustrations M RASMUSSEN

Imagine, if you will: you’re sitting in a darkened room, and for the first time ever, with a silvery-white screen in front of you. Suddenly, the screen begins to flicker—grainy, black and white shadows. Railroad tracks appear. A train pulls into the station, and men run beside it. It’s a static shot, merely 50 seconds with no sound, no close-ups or cutaway. You, along with the rest of the crowd, have never seen a moving image before—and then there’s a train heading right at you. The effect is entrancing, terrifying; the image on the screen startlingly similar to real life, but also so different. The point of view, the colors, all like a strange alternate, separate reality. This was the seminal 1895 Lumière brothers film, Arrival of the Train, and its arrival on the scene would forever affect culture. Our ways of seeing, interpreting, synthesizing information, even our social modes, were molded in many ways by the technology of the moving image. Or was it the culture that demanded the technology?

There has always been a connection between technology and culture; technology influences society as much as our cultural interests—the zeitgeist—sway technological advancements. The two have a reciprocal relationship; they dance with each other and interconnect in circles, complex to untangle. Arrival of the Train, and with it the creation of a visual media culture, is an early example of this. The mass production of cars created a culture of commuters, and the suburbs. With TV, we got passive participation with entertainment in the home—reality TV, Hollywood, the news. Living in 2018, as we do, means that our lives are—for better and for worse—rooted in the various influences and innovations of technology. The Internet is over twenty years old; now we must grapple with the aftershocks of its existence, the unfathomable possibilities that come with it, and the rippling effects it has on our culture of understanding, organizing, and educating. Our digital culture is inherently collaborative, fast-paced, democratized, and innovative. We are interrogating corporations and institutions. We are more interested than ever before in our identities, which opens up many dialogues, including some surrounding mental health. We wonder how, as individuals, we may affect the world and vice versa. We are as a society simultaneously grappling with these themes, while being empowered and overwhelmed by the global reach of the Internet. So we must wonder: how can digital culture, the sheer pervasiveness of tech and data, be used for good? How can it help our communities, enhance civil society, increase awareness, and underscore compassion and humanism?

Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit dedicated to utilizing tech and data to help those in crisis, is at the forefront of a rapidly evolving world of digital civil society that is helping us answer these questions. They provide an invaluable service—24/7 access to trained volunteer crisis counselors via our phones. If you are in pain, all you have to do to get help is text in. No phone call, no face-to face meet up with a counselor. Crisis Text Line’s mission is simple: use data to help improve the outcomes for people in crisis. Nancy Lublin, the CEO and founder of Crisis Text Line, believes that by using technology and data we can improve the state of mental health in America and our overall human condition. “We outlined our founding principles as two things,” she tells me, during our phone interview. “Half of our impact would be the direct service for people in pain, and the other half was going to be about learning and sharing this publicly. This way we can reduce stigma, foster conversation, and, we hope, make the entire space smarter and more data driven. Data makes policy, research, journalism, policing, school boards, everything better. I don’t think of myself as a mental health activist, I think of myself as a national health activist.” This organization, and those like it, are critical to our under
standing of how technology and culture impact each other in our precise sociocultural moment. They are reshaping how we communicate, and defining how we may both give and receive help within a global digital community. Raw information, in the right hands, can teach us important things about the state of our culture and society. And it all happens through our phones. “Crisis Text Line is ultimately a service provider,” Lublin tells me. “It’s new, it’s exciting, it’s innovative, it’s about kindness and strangers talking to other strangers.”

Before founding Crisis Text Line, Lublin helmed DoSomething.org, from 2003 until 2015. Like Crisis Text Line, DoSomething is primarily a texting service interested in how tech can be used to promote activism and social change. With the ease of staying connected digitally, DoSomething was incredibly successful with young people who wanted to be clued in to what kind of service they could be doing in their communities and beyond. DoSomething was founded with the mission to harness the growing spirit of activism amongst young people. According to the Higher Education Research Institute, since 1994 (notably, this is when millennials first entered the data pool) 25% more youths, ages 16-20 years old have stepped up to volunteer. DoSomething, with their 6 million members, has profound reach. As the organization is text based, they receive innumerable messages from members who write in asking for personal help. “There’s one message that really started it all,” Lublin says. “We got this message that was just so much darker and felt so much…like a punch in the gut. It said, he won’t stop raping me, it’s my dad, he told me not to tell anyone. And then the letters, U there?” Stunned, they right away responded with the number for RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. But they never heard back from the texter. This was seven years ago, and Lublin has tried and tried in vain to reach the individual. The experience, though painful, clued her into something important: people in crisis, particularly young people, needed a place in which they could text in and receive instant help. That brave, disquieting text set an innovative organization in motion. “I really don’t know anything about that person,” Lublin says. 

“I DON’T KNOW IF THEY ARE MALE OR FEMALE, I DON’T KNOW IF THEY’RE DEAD OR ALIVE, BUT I HOPE THEY’RE OUT THERE SOMEWHERE AND SEE WHAT THEY’VE INSPIRED, BECAUSE I THINK ABOUT THIS PERSON ALL THE TIME. I TELL THIS STORY BECAUSE I HOPE THAT THEY SEE IT. I HOPE THEY’RE ALIVE AND IN A STRONG,SAFE PLACE. I HOPE THEY KNOW THAT THEIR COURAGE, THEIR REACHING OUT TO DO SOMETHING LIKE THAT, TO SHARE, INSPIRED AN ENTIRE NEW COMPANY THAT’S NOW HELPING MILLIONS OF OTHER PEOPLE. SO I REALLY HOPE THEY SEE THIS.”

And so Crisis Text Line began, rooted in compassion, kindness, and technology. Lublin set up shop in 2013 in the corner of a friend’s office, with Jason Bennett and Bob Filbin acting as Chief Technology Officer and Chief Data Specialist. Within four months, they were serving every area code in the U.S. Now, the organization has over 4,200 Crisis Counselors—all volunteers. They’ve exchanged over 77 million text messages, and as of May 2018, have been involved in 11,563 active rescues, the term for when emergency services are sent to intervene on an active suicide attempt. With 77 million text messages comes a lot of data, and as soon as they had enough to anonymize and aggregate it, CrisisTrends. Org was launched. This is where the data from Text Line is collected, stored, and analyzed in real time. “We  knew technology was going to be the crux of what we were doing, and that this was a tech startup, and so it’s super important to share all of this information,” Lublin tells me. Indeed—it’s an almost unfathomable amount of hyper-specific raw information, and anyone with internet capabilities can access it. A quick scan of the home page of Crisis Trends tells us the most common day of the week for texters to experi-ence anxiety and stress, the states with the highest amount of crises, and the top 35 words used by individuals experiencing a certain crisis (texters struggling with eating disorders, for example, commonly use words like mom, better, friends, never, always, and bad). The site’s subtitle is, “Crisis Trends empowers journalists, researchers, school administrators, parents, and all citizens to understand the crises their communities face so we can work together to prevent future crises.”

In other words, with Crisis Text Line and Trends, there is no causation data, only correlative data. They don’t know why people living in New Hampshire have more anxiety than people living in South Carolina, they just know that it’s happening and how much. As the site’s subtitle suggests, Crisis Text Line just provides the “service”— the public data and the place for people in pain to reach out. In theory, this may empower others to connect the dots, to figure out the why.

Crisis Text Line doesn’t analyze data to understand causation, but they do work with their information to increase the effectiveness of this style of counseling. This manifests most interestingly in what they call strength identifiers: specific words that a counselor can use that data has shown to be helpful to those in crisis. “Strong is a big one,” Lublin tells me. “Brave is a big one. Impressive is a big one. It helps people to remember their own power. And to feel calm.” Crisis Text Line, like other tech startups, also uses data to improve the overall quality of their service. If there is a wait to be matched with a counselor, the line is handled based on severity of crisis, not on chronology. 86% of highrisk texters are found based on their first text alone, which is determined by the specific language used. For example, according to collected data, the crying face emoji connotes an 11x higher risk for serious self-harm than the word suicide itself. Facts like these underscore that the universe of Crisis Text Line is entirely digital. Raw human emotion is translated into information, and the intense emotional interactions between counselor and texter could be happening anywhere and at any time. “The anonymity is huge,” Lublin tells me. “The privacy is huge for the texters. You feel safe, you don’t feel judged. For the crisis counselor, when you get really hard messages, and you gasp or you need to take a breath for yourself, [it helps] to prepare yourself to respond.” It’s not just the anonymity—it’s “location, location, location”, as Lublin says. Texting is easy. It can be done from anywhere: the school lunch table, the bathroom at work, at home alone late at night. “This gives us the chance to have maximum impact,” Lublin says.

“WE’RE GETTING THEM IN THE HEAT OF THE MOMENT, INSTEAD OF HOURS LATER WHEN THEY HAVE A QUIET TIME TO CALL OR MAKE AN APPOINTMENT WITH A COUNSELOR. IT’S PRIVATE AND ANONYMOUS AND QUIET. WE CAN GET YOU IN A MOMENT WHERE WE CAN TIP YOU FROM WHAT COULD BE A PERMANENTLY LIFE-ALTERING DECISION, INTO A HEALTHY CHOICE. WE’RE RIGHT THERE WITH YOU.”

Interactions like this could not be more different than how we communicate outside the digital world. In real time, you can hear people cry, hear a catch in their voice, see someone smile, or see their body language— and you probably won’t know the exact right thing to say in the moment, or be able to craft the perfect response. Technology eliminates all of this, for better and for worse. We can take our time composing the perfect message of comfort or spit out a short, angry note without having to see the physical reaction of who receives it. Digitization has perhaps limited our in-person interactions, but it has also created infinite virtual communities that have a wealth of resources and information to support themselves. Crisis Text Line volunteers, for example, can volunteer from anywhere and at any time. Typically, volunteering in America means that you have to be available during the week and business hours, and have access to a city. This makes it difficult for many people to volunteer, and inhibits the potential diversity of volunteers. With virtual volunteering at Crisis Text Line, this isn’t an issue. You could complete your hours lying on the couch in your pajamas. “We’re trying to democratize volunteering,” Lublin says. Providing the opportunity for almost anyone (you must complete a background check and training hours) to volunteer is one of the most radical things Crisis Text Line is doing. “We have a couple dozen deaf volunteers, and it’s really hard to volunteer if you have accessibility issues, so we’re really passionate about them. We have a couple dozen military personnel, a bunch of students who are considering counseling as a career, a lot of moms who have learned from their own experience in their homes, or want to become better at it, a lot of older volunteers, people over 70, which really debunks the theory that older people don’t care about young people’s problems. There’s a lot of people who have been motivated by their own mental health experience or someone close to them.” Even though Crisis Text Line, so far, only reaches the US, Canada, and the UK, there are expat volunteers texting those in crisis from London, Dubai, and Singapore. Crisis Text Line trains their volunteers internally, something they didn’t think was going to happen at the beginning. “[We thought] we’d just be the technology, the platform, but when we trained our own people, synthesizing the best training and practices we saw from other crisis centers, we began to have higher satisfaction and quality ratings,” Lublin tells me. By 2015, they were responsible for training all of their own volunteers. In the last 28 days, the organization has had more than 4,200 active volunteers. Despite the diversity of its volunteer base, all of them are bound together by a similar mission: the desire for impact. “We’ve tested and asked all the volunteers like, ‘what keeps them going?’’ Lublin muses. “What attracts them? And the simple answer is impact. All they want it to know that they’re helping another life.” Crisis Text Line’s diverse pool of volunteers is critical to their success, and keeps the organization rooted firmly in the global mental health community.

What’s troubling is how many people seem to need help, and the severity of the crises they are experiencing. One alarming piece of data provided by Crisis Trends details that after the 2016 Presidential election, the organization experienced an 8x increase in texter volume, with “scared” and “worried” as the most common words used. Two thirds of all messages that Crisis Text Line receives discloses something that the texter has never shared with anyone else before. 35% of all conversations are related to depression or suicidal ideation. In her New York Times interview about Crisis Text Line, Lublin described “pain as a growth industry.” I wondered—does this mean that there’s actually more pain in the world, or are we simply more aware of it now because of identity politics and the information saturation of the internet? “Well, there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of pain,” Lublin tells me. “And it seems to be getting more intense…so I do mean it when I say that pain is a growth industry, and I think you’re seeing that with so many wellness and mindfulness companies, both for profit and not for profit. I think this rising generation is more tuned into their happiness than ever been before. When I was a kid, there were no books about happiness, and now there’s an entire section of the bookstore about happiness.” The messages Crisis Text Line gets do skew young—75% of all texters are under the age of 24. Recently, 17% of all incoming messages are sent by someone under the age of 13, “which, as a parent, blows my mind,” Lublin admits to me. When I asked if she thought teens were reaching out because of the inherent difficulties of navigating teenage life, or if it was an underlying shift in the overall mental health of our country, Lublin reminds me she only has correlative data. “I don’t know,” She says. “But I can tell you it’s always been difficult to be a teenager.” It’s true—being young means you have less control over your life; you’re navigating the confusing, chaotic, and liminal space between child and adulthood. But what’s specific to 2018 that could be contributing to mental health trends in America? What’s on the rise, and has been much discussed and analyzed by current media, is the overwhelming amount of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation of youths in particular. Many—including teens—point the finger of blame at social media. “Teens are living in a virtual reality and a voyeuristic culture of violence and humiliation,” controversial TV host Glenn Beck bellowed in a 2008 broadcast. This is vitriolic, but a rhetoric that many use when talking about digitization and youth culture. All that time alone creates isolation. The complete lack of privacy and intense scrutiny causes anxiety and narcissism. Cyber-bullying leads to depression and suicidal ideation. “We definitely see people talking to us about social media,” Lublin tells me. “For example, our data shows that cyber-bullying almost always copresents with suicidal ideation, so cyber-bullying turns out to be more lethal than offline bullying. I do think that there are some scary things about social media and the world that we live in, but I wouldn’t be the one to say that the world’s problems are caused by [social media.] I think sometimes our problems just feel magnified because of it.”

Not all the data is grim: according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, teen pregnancy and drunk driving accidents are lower than ever before, as are incidents of youth crime. Since 1996, the percentage of “clean teens”—teenagers not having consumed drugs or alcohol—has risen by 15%. Many would argue that the relative isolation provided by technology has contributed to the lower rates of teen pregnancy and drunk driving, and created virtual communities for those who feel alienated by their direct surroundings. In his book, The Net Generation, Don Tapscott asserts that digitization has improved the emotional capacity of young people: “they’re expressing their feelings in writing. They are the most social generation ever. And with their resources turned to speed and freedom, these empowered young people are beginning to transform every institution of modern life. They are replacing a culture of control with a culture of enablement.” Collaboration, independence, and a focus on identity are as present in youth mental health as are anxiety and depression. The relationship between digitization and youth culture makes it clear that we must continue to question and define our evolving virtual spaces. We are writing the rules and learning to navigate through global digital society. Our relationship with this affects our mental health, our civic activity, and thus our zeitgeist—how we define our cultural moment.

The complicated relationship between tech, culture, and civil society is exemplified by an organization like Crisis Text Line.

“I’VE DESCRIBED TECHNOLOGY AS LIKE A LIGHTSABER,” LUBLIN TELLS ME. “IT CAN BE RED—THE DARK SIDE—OR BLUE USED FOR GOOD. TECH CAN BE USED FOR EVIL, AND FOR PAIN, OR YOU CAN USE IT TO MAKE PEOPLE FEEL BETTER.

photography JODY ROGAC
makeup JENNY KANAVAROS
shot at JACK STUDIOS

So, I know there are people who hate on social media. I’m not going to be one of them. The thing that’s beautiful about social media is that, you know, a gay kid living in a town where he doesn’t feel comfortable coming out, can connect online with other gay kids. And thanks to technology, Crisis Text Line exists. I think it would be really convenient to be able to say any one thing is the cause of what’s going on in the world. There are a lot of things that contribute to this moment that we’re in.” With the incredible wealth of information and possibility of technology comes an unfathomable array of influences. The crux is that the reality of our cultural moment is one of rapid change, brought on in large part by digitization. As suggested, we are, as a culture, learning to wield the tools we have—the blue lightsaber—for good, to ground all the information, innovation, and influence in empathy and compassion. Tapscott deems our culture to be moving towards becoming more highly evolved and actively participatory due to the internet. “We are approaching work collaboratively, collaps-ing the rigid hierarchy and forcing organizations to rethink their practices. In society as a whole, empowered by the global reach of the internet, civic activity is becoming a new, more powerful kind of activism.” Civil society and civic society are based upon asking ourselves the question: how do we do good in the world? Crisis Text Line is certainly considering this, as are countless other nonprofits and activist groups that exist solely in virtual reality. Ideas and educated, empowered people are everywhere. “But is that all just flash and noise that obscures the massive changes down in the trenches of social services, education, healthcare, and culture?” Tom Watson, a social entrepreneur specialist muses, in his Forbes article, “Digital Civil Society: Asking the Right Question on Data, Dollars, and Democracy.” “Huge amounts of public data do not necessarily create impact on their own… Will our new digital civil society be more democratic—not just reflecting the will of the people, but actively empowering it on a daily basis?”

These kinds of questions have historically been asked whenever there is profound innovation. Our capacity for goodness and methodologies of compassion must update as technology and culture roll forward. And it may be some time before we have precise answers and definitions.

In my mind, we are moving in the right direction when we are asking the difficult questions. We are collectively musing as a society on how to combat the darkness of our times with new technological resources for community and culture building. We are using our unlimited well of information to explore how digitization impacts culture and our way of life. My query was how tech and data can empower us, what it can teach us about humanity. The fact that so much of our most effective technology is being used for good—for humans to help other humans—is important. We are attempting to root our society in a culture of engagement, which is the ethos for Crisis Text Line.

”THIS IS STRANGERS TALKING TO STRANGERS IN THEIR MOST DIRE MOMENTS,” LUBLIN SAYS. “YOU HAVE TO BE COMFORTABLE KNOWING THAT YOU CAN’T TOTALLY SOLVE THAT PROBLEM, BUT YOU CAN HELP THEM COME UP WITH A PLAN. YOU CAN MAKE THEM FEEL VALIDATED. YOU CAN REMIND THEM OF HOW STRONG THEY ARE. I FIND IT VERY HOPEFUL. AND WHEN I LOG OFF THE [VOLUNTEERING] PLATFORM, I’M SMILING FROM EAR TO EAR, AND FEELING SO STRONG. THIS IS SO RAW, AND SO REAL, AND SO LOVING. IT’S A WONDERFUL ISLAND OF LOVE IN A SEA OF ANGER AND ISOLATION.

Organizations like Crisis Text Line ground their work in humanism, emphasizing our common needs as well as the value and goodness of human beings. It’s about finding rational ways of solving fundamental human problems, such as how we relate to each other socially, approach mental health and connect. Alongside these organizations, we must keep engaging with how we use our new digital systems safely and effectively and for the good of our global society.

Thinking back on the Arrival of the Train: there was a hundred-year long rumor that when the film was first shown, there was a panic in the theater. People were so shocked by the newness and profundity of the technology, that they ran screaming from their seats. This has since been disproven. There was no panic, no screaming. People were shocked, but they were also amazed, enchanted and emboldened. We can approach the all-consuming effects of digitization in the same way: let us move into the new not with fear and cynicism, but with kindness, wonder, responsibility, and engagement.