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Some teens are texting for help

CREATED Jun 10, 2014

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MILWAUKEE - When a 'new message' notification pops up on their screens, counselors at a 'text to help' agency have to act quickly--someone is texting in and needs their service. Anitra is a former victim turned advocate. She knows what it's like to turn to texting in a tough situation.

"I felt very trapped. I felt like I couldn't tell my family what was going on," she recalls.

Anitra says she was in an abusive relationship before these new high tech hotlines existed. She too felt more comfortable reaching out by text, and leaned on her friends. "It takes away, you know, some of the awkwardness. You can probably say things that you wouldn't in person through a text message."

Tapping in to that anonymity counseling centers across the country are starting to offer 'Text For Help Hotlines'. Assistance at your fingertips now available for problems including: Peer pressure, depression, relationship issues and bullying.

The National Dating Abuse Helpline says it receives more than 850 texts a month. Helpline President Katie Ray-Jones explains, "It was amazing to me to hear young people say this is the most private way for them to communicate."

So private that some teens text in during school, or while they're with their parents. Hotline staff like Nicole Seligman admit it's challenging to give concise advice in a short text and often send links to websites with more information. "There's always going to be that missing nuance when you're not hearing the tone of someone's voice."

Licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula says texting for help is a powerful way to reach teens, and even adults. But, because it's so new, mental health professionals need to create some basic guidelines.

"We can get so easily swept away in new technologies we forget that there are some factors in there that can really harm our ability to do our job as well as we can," Dr. Durvasula warns.

She says she's concerned about potential digital dangers like:

-Texts for help that don't get through

-Keeping messages confidential using secure networks

-And crisis centers' protocols in emergencies

Katie Ray-Jones says they've got a plan for that at the national dating abuse helpline: "If someone sends us a text message and they are in the throes of a violent situation we're going to advise them to call 911. If 911 is not an option for them, we are going to talk about can you get to a safe place."

Anitra says she wishes text for help lines existed when she was younger. "I would have used that. Just because it would have been anonymous. Being able to text someone who I don't know and just give them the overall you know situation like 'Hey, is this normal, is this acceptable?'"

Dr. Durvasula points out letting teens text in for help can open the door for kids who might feel there is a stigma associated with reaching out. But, she warns that texting should not replace long term face-to-face counseling.