While crisis hotlines have helped people cope with emotional trauma and personal tragedies for decades, Boys Town National Hotline? has changed with the times to accommodate modern ways people communicate.
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Opening up about personal topics over the phone, such as suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety, can be challenging for many, which is why Boys Town's text and chat services are so important. Although the hotline remains the quickest and, most often, best way to assist individuals contemplating self-harm or experiencing abuse, messaging services create flexibility and allow counselors to easily share resources.
"We want to be as accessible as possible," said Ginny Gohr, director of the Boys Town National Hotline. "Having several mediums for people to reach us gives people the ability to choose their preferred platform."
Children, teens and young adults can directly text a counselor via SMS messaging or by using the "My Life My Voice" mobile app. Parents and young adults also can send questions via email and will receive a response within 48 hours.
Counselors received emails, chats and texts from 23,000 teens in 2019, compared to 127,000 crisis calls from teens and parents.
Emails and text messages offer many advantages; one being the ability to reach out in any surrounding. Hotline callers may not be able to speak in crowded areas or may omit details when in the presence of peers.
Another advantage is the ability to easily share links to downloadable resources and blogs from Boys Town's Your Live Your Voice website. The website features a gamut of topics ranging from break ups to eating disorders, each with customized exercises that prompt individuals to self-reflect and find courage from within.
But mobile offerings also present challenges. Text and email services are not intended to be therapy replacements, and users who stop responding may be less likely to have their concerns addressed. Counselors speaking over the phone can encourage callers to stay on the line by using a comforting voice and tone, whereas nonverbal cues are limited with the new approaches.
Fortunately, feedback on these new approaches has been overwhelmingly positive, with users complimenting the counselors' friendliness and reassurance. More importantly, people wholeheartedly agree Boys Town's offerings have saved their life.
Marcus, a teenager battling depression, sent an email a little over a year ago saying he didn't want to live to see 17. Fast forward to today, and he no longer is in that dark place. He graduated high school, a task he never thought imaginable, and has a bright future.
"Although things still aren't perfect, because of the help Boys Town gave me, I know I can get through it," he said. "To this day, when things get rough, I go back and reread the email [the counselor] sent. It always helps."
Boys Town's innovative chatting and messaging services, reaching even more people at risk or facing crisis, is made possible thanks to partners like Union Pacific, who donated in 2019 through its Community Ties Giving Program.
"We're deeply invested in keeping people safe and informed," Gohr said. "We hope people know that we're never more than a phone call, text or email away. It's why we're here. We want people to feel comfortable asking for help when they need it and to have a readily available resource when they don't know where else to turn."