Texting a cry for help

Health | April 8, 2015
A young woman holding a smartphone

Using technology to reach our troubled youth.

We believe a happy community is a healthy community. According to the Provincial Health Officer’s annual report, it’s estimated that 1.2 million children and youth in Canada suffer from mental illness. That’s why we support the Youth Crisis Text-Talk program from Wood’s Homes in Calgary. They have created an innovative and non-invasive counseling service that uses technology to catch our young people when they have nowhere else to land.

Our TELUS Calgary Community Board is heavily invested in keeping our kids safe and ensuring healthy futures for all. That’s why we committed a $20,000 grant to help create the Youth Crisis Text-Talk program and are inspired by the positive results.

“The reality of these young people being so close to pain and painful experiences is scary. But it would be far scarier if we weren’t aware of how our youth were feeling.”

- Niki Whitefield

Team Leader, Wood’s Homes

Every day in our cities there are children and youth facing tough issues, issues we often don’t like to think about, such as domestic violence, parental abuse, neglect, or substance abuse. They live with feelings of anger, hurt, fear and abandonment. And sometimes they get into trouble – skipping school, using drugs or alcohol, hanging out with the wrong crowd, acting out – and are at risk of criminal involvement, teen pregnancy or even homelessness. Finding someone who speaks their language can prove difficult for these young people.

This new Youth Crisis Text-Talk program is increasing accessibility to counseling services for vulnerable teens that have barriers to accessing mainstream services. Youth can reach out and receive a prompt response using a method of communication that is safe, cost effective and culturally relevant – texting. The widespread use of texting among youth means immediately having services more accessible by forgoing waiting lists, intake processes, assessments and transportation to counseling venues. Matching the preferred contact method for youth is designed to increase the number of contacts and opportunities for Wood’s Homes to help.

"There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want and that they grow up in peace."

Kofi A. Annan

UN Secretary-General

The program first targeted a high-needs school with a vulnerable population in September 2013 and completed another campaign in January 2014. They presently have six trained counselors using technology to talk to or help locate a child that presents a threat to their own life or the lives of others. With the text-talk initiative not only did the number of ‘clients’ rise, but all except one text came from 13 to 17-year olds. The use of texting technology allows users of the service to be more informal, which creates a better rapport and response. They appreciate the anonymity and ability to reach out during off hours, which can help significantly during a period of crisis. This was true in the case of a 14-year-old girl who texted in one evening after her mother walked out during a dispute. The young girl was scared of being alone for the night and had admitted that she had cut herself before – as a way of dealing with her stress. The counselor managed to get her address and ensure she was safe and supported.

Every time the counselors encounter a situation like this they have a variety of techniques and solutions available, including immediate crisis support, information, education and the ability to make referrals to community-based services.

For the community, the costs of not paying attention to youth mental health and depression can be overwhelming. For 12 to 19 year olds those costs are paid in increased high school dropout rates, higher unemployment and even suicide. According to the British Columbia Psychological Association, every dollar spent on counseling equals five dollars saved in medical costs. And, research from the Canadian Mental Health Association tells us that help can make a difference in 80 per cent of those affected. The Youth Crisis Text-Talk program is an innovative initiative providing support for youth and their families. It’s our job to protect our youth and this is a direct answer to their unread requests.