Helping a Friend via Text: Tips from Crisis Text Line

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September 13, 2017 – Many of us who communicate via text have gotten that message from a friend: whether it says, “I’m feeling lost,” or, “I need help,” or, “I don’t know what to do,” we know what it feels like to receive a message from a friend in some kind of crisis. Reading that kind of message from someone in pain, you may feel concerned, helpless, or even panicked.

What makes supporting someone in crisis feel so different over text, as opposed to a phone call or in person? For one, many of us still think of texting as an informal medium of communication, reserved for lighthearted chats, quick check-ins, or innocent flirtation. For a lot of people, serious subjects and texting just don’t seem to mesh.

The reality is that text is how a lot of us – particularly young people – communicate. Not every serious conversation is going to happen face-to-face. In one survey, 75 percent of millennials preferred texting over talking on the phone! Knowing this, what nuances do you have to be aware of if you find yourself texting with a person in crisis?

At Crisis Text Line, text is our medium of choice. We’re all about meeting people where they already are, so text was a natural choice for our modern era. We’ve learned a lot along the way about how to best use the medium of text to provide support to a person in crisis. For the most part, the same principles apply: avoid giving advice, validate feelings, and, above all, listen.

Here are some of our favorite tips for handling the trickier aspects of text:

  1. Replace silence with reflection. There can be great power in silence when you’re supporting someone in person or over the phone. They can hear you quietly being present. But that’s not an option via text! Instead, use spaces in the conversation to reflect on what the person in crisis has shared with you so far. For instance, you could say, “It seems like you’re feeling like your girlfriend really let you down,” or “It sounds like you’re terrified of going back to school tomorrow.” Reflection tells the person that you’re listening and doing your best to understand.
  2. Don’t be afraid to be direct. When someone you care about may be at risk, it’s important to ask directly if they’re thinking about suicide. If they are, it’s important that they not be alone: if you can’t go to them, find out if another friend or family member can. Continue texting with them until someone can be with them.
  3. Find balance in your timing. Unlike when you’re speaking to someone, texting gives you some time to think and revise before sending your reply. You can certainly use that to your advantage, but you also don’t want to leave your friend waiting. Avoid overthinking your responses to the point that too much time goes by: remember that just being there is the most valuable thing you can do.
  4. Tone can be tricky! At Crisis Text Line, we spend a lot of time training our Crisis Counselors to build rapport with texters: for example, by being mindful of using the texter’s name in a way that shows they’re there for them: (“Chris, it means a lot that you were able to open up so much today.”) Of course, if you’re supporting a close friend, rapport isn’t an issue. Even so, conveying the right tone can be hard. Be thoughtful about how your punctuation and grammar are being read. Ask yourself things like: ‘Would this seem friendlier if I used contractions?’ or, ‘Does that exclamation point seem sarcastic?’
  5. Privacy. We take texter privacy seriously, and follow the strictest standards for keeping conversations confidential. Likewise, be mindful of who can see your phone when you’re texting with a friend in crisis. It’s just the right thing to do.

While it may seem like this sort of delicate, personal conversation would be more natural to have over the phone or in person, the fact is that for a lot of people experiencing a mental health crisis, saying the words out loud – that they need help, or that they’re thinking of killing themselves – can feel intimidating, or even impossible. For many, texting makes it easier to reach out.

Texting with someone in crisis offers its own unique challenges and opportunities. Keep these tips in mind, and just remember: the important thing is to have the conversation.

For more general pointers on helping a friend in crisis, see AFSP’s “When Someone is at Risk” resource.

You can text TALK to 741-741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7.