Texting out an S.O.S. 

Saving Lives With Smartphones and Big Data

Only two percent of high school students who experience suicidal thoughts use telephone crisis hotlines.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to talk about the issues they face, or won’t seek support. They will, if you extend it in ways that they’re comfortable with.

Take an innovative non-profit called Crisis Text Line.

CTL is exactly what it sounds like — a service where trained volunteers offer emotional support to people in crisis, through text messages.

While CTL’s earliest adopters were teens and twentysomethings, it is now used by an ever-widening range of people, facing a broad range of issues: Depression, substance abuse, physical abuse, isolation, eating disorders, and more. For anyone experiencing problems, there’s a single number they can text: 741741. At any time of the day, it connects them with volunteers who’ve been trained to help individuals in crisis "move from a hot moment to a cool calm."

CTL launched in August 2013 with little notice and no marketing budget. Earlier this week, it processed its 10 millionth message. Clearly this is a service for which there is a huge and crucially important need. Indeed, as of 2010, an estimated 45.9 million adults age 18 or older in the U.S. experience some form of mental illness. It’s more common than cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.

Easy access to the kind of support CTL provides is a key resource in combating mental illness and other behaviors that put people in crisis, and shifting that support from voice to text has a number of practical virtues. People often find it easier to disclose the issues they’re dealing with when they don’t have to literally give voice to them. And if a person is contacting CTL from a public space, or even at home when others are present (including, potentially, an abusive parent or partner), texting offers a more private way to seek support.

But these virtues are only part of what make CTL so transformative, and such a model for other tech-based social change organizations to emulate. CTL grew out of DoSomething.org, a non-profit that helps young people organize campaigns designed to produce positive social change, like donating jeans to homeless teens or encouraging Apple to diversify racial representations in its human emojis.

When Nancy Lublin, then DoSomething.org’s CEO, decided to build out CTL as a separate entity after recognizing that traditional crisis hotlines weren’t well-aligned with a generation more comfortable with text, her first hire was a chief technology officer. Her second was a chief data scientist.

In short, Nancy approached the project as an entrepreneur looking to achieve impact at scale by leveraging technology. From the very start, Nancy recognized that CTL could give the best possible support to individual texters by applying insights and strategies gleaned from the organization’s entire corpus of conversations. And she also recognized that technology and Big Data analytics would allow her relatively small team to extend support services to more people, faster.

Because the conversations between individuals in crisis and CTL’s volunteers occur in a format that’s very easy to anonymously analyze, the organization very quickly had access to what a New Yorker profile on the organization described as a "unique collection of mental-health data." And as its user base expands – middle-aged men, for example, now comprise 10 percent of its texters – its dataset is becoming even more comprehensive.

As the New Yorker explains, CTL knows that "depression peaks at 8 P.M., anxiety at 11 P.M., self-harm at 4 A.M., and substance abuse at 5 A.M." Its software can advise CTL’s trained volunteers on the best ways to engage texters who use specific keywords, and suggest local support services where the texter can seek additional help.

Like any tech-driven enterprise built on data analysis, it can also keep refining and improving its interventions by closely tracking the impact of different approaches.

Conversations typically last 45 minutes. In a little over two years, CTL has initiated nearly 2000 "active rescues" – i.e., situations where police or EMTs were dispatched to stop an imminent suicide.

When Nancy presented the concept to me, I provided the seed capital to help launch CTL as a standalone non-profit because it shared so many similarities with classic Silicon Valley start-ups. It had a strong entrepreneurial founder with a track record of leading high-impact organizations. (In addition to serving as CEO at DoSomething.org, she also founded Dress For Success, a global non-profit that has helped more than 850,000 women achieve economic independence.) It had a clear product/market fit, and a scalable tech solution. To date, CTL has spent no money on marketing. Users find it through word-of-mouth.

But while CTL had all the characteristics of an organization poised for rapid impact, even relatively few Silicon Valley start-ups achieve the sort of traction and transformative influence as quickly as CTL has to date. CTL isn’t just helping it users save time or money. It’s helping them save their lives. And, simultaneously, as CTL shares the data it’s generating with researchers, journalists, police departments, schoolboards, and other municipal agencies, it’s catalyzing systemic change too.

As CTL continues to expand to meet user demand, I hope others in the tech industry will both support it and be inspired by it.

At this point, we’re all very familiar with canonical consumer Internet companies like LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Airbnb, and countless others, and the positive impacts they’ve had on how we manage our careers and daily work lives, deepen personal relationships, pursue recreation, and more.

But while venture capital, media speculation, and public discourse tends to coalesce around the hunt for the next massive commercial success, tech-driven entrepreneurship can be equally powerful and dynamic when it’s applied to social change efforts that are difficult or even detrimental to commercialize. Data analytics, tighter feedback loops, and network intelligence can improve our lives in ways that aren’t contingent on potential profits. Thanks to the work of high-impact entrepreneurs like Nancy, we’re beginning to broaden our sense of what is ultimately possible.

This article was originally published here on November 12, 2015

Photo by Mariah Dietzler