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In addition, more than ninety-eight per cent of text messages are opened; they are four times more likely to be read by the recipient than e-mails.If you’re a parent, you know that, even if your son does not text you back about where he is, he has read your message.The interface looks remarkably like a Facebook feed—pale background, blue banner at the top, pop-up messages in the lower right corner—a design that is intended to feel familiar and frictionless.The system, which receives an average of fifteen thousand texts a day, highlights messages containing words that might indicate imminent danger, such as “suicide,” “kill,” and “hopeless.”Within five minutes, one of the counsellors on duty will write back.But a typo appearing on the cell-phone screen of a distressed teen-ager can undermine the sense of authority he’s looking for.“You have to train yourself not to hit that return button automatically,” a sixty-year-old counsellor from California told me.The number—741741—traces a simple, muscle-memory-friendly path down the left column of the keypad.Anyone who texts in receives an automatic response welcoming her to the service.
These people have contacted a stranger for a reason. Often, the conversations are about minor-seeming problems—fights with friends, academic pressure from parents—and the bar for helpfulness is quite low. Nobody ever does that,’ and at other times it’s less explicit; they just want to get everything out, and they provide you with a very, very detailed account.”The etiquette encouraged for counsellors can be surprising. Instead, counsellors are trained to deploy language that at first seems inflammatory: “You must be devastated” is a common refrain; so is “That sounds like torture.” The idea is to validate texters’ feelings and respond in a way that doesn’t belittle them.
(Up to fifty people, most of them in their late twenties, are available at any given time, depending upon demand, and they can work wherever there’s an Internet connection.) An introductory message from a counsellor includes a casual greeting and a question about why the texter is writing in.
If the texter’s first message is substantive (“My so-called boyfriend is drunk and won’t stop yelling at me”), the counsellor echoes the language in order to elicit additional details (“I’m so sorry to hear that. I’m freaking out”), the reply will be more open-ended, while gently pressing for greater specificity (“So what’s going on tonight? An average exchange takes place over a little more than an hour, longer if there is the risk of suicide.
“A lot of times, when chatting with young people, it’s clear that they just need someone to listen to them,” one counsellor told me. When an agitated friend texts me bad news (a breakup, a layoff, a sudden rent increase), my instinct is to find a positive response to the predicament (“But you didn’t even like him! Thomas Joiner, a psychology professor at Florida State University and one of the country’s leading suicide experts, pointed out another way in which conversational norms can be counterproductive.
“From a clinical standpoint, one common misstep is tiptoeing around issues and treating them like taboos,” he said.