How the Crisis Text Line Came to Be

Crisis support lines like the National Suicide Prevention Line do vitally important work, but there are times when a phone call just isn’t practical. If you don’t have a safe place to talk, if you have a speech disorder, if you’re anxious or you just aren’t that comfortable using the phone, the Crisis Text Line could be a literal lifesaver.

Content Warning: Discussion of sexual abuse and suicide.

Given how much more comfortable young people are with text-based messaging, it’s no surprise that there’s demand for that kind of crisis line – but the story of how it came to be is surprisingly heartbreaking. It began with, a social change organization that uses text messages to mobilize its user base. As it turned out, some members of that userbase would text back with stories that were sometimes haunting. Mashable has more.

“He won’t stop raping me. He told me not to tell anyone.”

In August 2011, teen-focused social change organization received this startling text message. It wasn’t rare for the nonprofit to receive replies unrelated to the social causes it highlighted through its mobile platform — teens often looked to talk about issues such as bullying, questioning sexuality and substance abuse. But this text’s raw honesty was particularly jarring.

Former CEO Nancy Lublin recalls that text as the one that prompted her to build Crisis Text Line. She wasn’t able to help the anonymous texter, but she was able to take that tragic incident as motivation to make sure she could help others in need.

Lublin goes on to share some of the secrets that make Crisis Text Line work. It uses advanced algorithms to make sure the people in the most danger – people who text things like “I want to kill myself” – get to the front of the line so volunteers can help them as quickly as possible. It also offers anonymity, ensuring that identifying information is stripped away from phone numbers, and texts don’t appear on anyone’s phone bills.

And Lublin and her team took the service a step further. While everyone’s data is anonymized, important data is stored and collected. This lets Crisis Text Line find trends that will help it be more useful – and will help other organizations better respond to mental health crises.

“We use the data in two ways: to make us faster and more accurate, and to, hopefully, make the country better,” Lublin says.

Because of this data, Crisis Text Line knows that text counseling appeals to teens and young adults. About 65% of Crisis Text Line texters mention “school” as their location. While that’s not entirely surprising, an unexpected 35% of texters are estimated to be older than the line’s target teen audience. In fact, 10% of Crisis Text Line texters are middle-aged men.

“That’s really exciting, because [middle-aged men] are most at risk for depression and suicide,” Lublin says. “But they are least likely to seek out help.”


Crisis Text Line is also a great volunteering opportunity for people who may not be comfortable answering a phone line or coming out to an event. While its volunteers are well-prepared, completing 35 hours of training, they are in a position to help people without leaving their homes, and without using their voices.

To reach Crisis Text Line for support, text START to 741-741. To find out how to use their data in your own research, visit the Crisis Text Line website.

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