What I’ve been up to…

On August 2011 DoSomething.org, the largest youth volunteer network, received a horrifying series of text message in response to one of their text messaging campaigns: “He won’t stop raping me.” “He told me not to tell anyone.” “R u there?” “It’s my dad.” They responded by texting her existing social services, but never heard back.

That series of messages started Nancy Lublin and her team on a quest to find a new way to help people in crisis using the latest in technology, data, and science. The result was a new service called Crisis Text Line which was the first crisis intervention platform where you could text in and interact with a trained human 24x7 (check out her great TED talk).

Nancy recruited me to be one of the founding board members and we built the Crisis Text Line platform from the ground up using state-of-the-art data science, machine learning, and other technologies. We always knew there was a need and people were hurting, but the growth of the service has been staggering.

Growth of Crisis Text Line over time

Since launching on August 2013 CTL has handled more than 45,431,924 messages. It took CTL 3.5 years to handle the first million conversation and it will take ~10 months to handle the second million conversations. Crisis Text Line is being used in every state at all times of the day and night. You can get a sense of the data by going to the CTL data page: https://crisistrends.org/.

Crisis Text Line is powered by an amazing all volunteer network of crisis counselors from all around the country. These heroes (and I don’t use that word lightly) go through extensive training, coaching, and regular evaluations to ensure that they’re providing the best quality support at all times. But given the growth of demand, it’s critical to use data and technology to aid them. For example, the data shows the most effective conversations are between 45 and 60 messages. Or, if a texter messages in with the word “ibuprofen” they are 16 times more likely to be actively suicidal (“bridge” is 8 times and “tonight” is 3 times) and the crisis counselors can immediately begin a risk assessment to help de-escalate the texter.

Relative prevalence of crisis issues by state. A richer red indicates higher prevalence. The top three states are labeled.

When I took the opportunity to serve as the first U.S. Chief Data Scientist, as part of our strong ethical procedures, I stepped down from the board, severed all communication with CTL, and established a process to recuse myself from any areas of potential conflict. Still, during my time in the White House, I realized our country has drastic need for mental health services. It’s one of the reasons we established the Data-Driven Justice Initiative which covers more than 94 million Americans to make sure that those with mental health issues are getting the help they really need.

Since returning to being a public citizen, I’ve been thinking about how best can I help on these issues. And I was thrilled when Nancy and the Board reached out to me to ask me if I would consider returning (yes, it was done via text messaging).

I’m thrilled to be working again with Nancy, the Board, the entire staff, and most importantly all the volunteers who put make sure people get the help they need.

What’s this have to do with you? These kinds of platforms work best when we come together to make a difference. It works because you show up. Here’s how you can help.

  1. Know a person in need? They can text HOME to 741741 for free help, 24/7.
  2. Volunteer to be a crisis counselor. There is an application, background check, and 34 hour online training — and then you literally, could save a person’s life from your own couch.
  3. Are you a techie, designer, or data scientist? Willing to spend 2 or more weeks with the team in New York? Come volunteer! It will be the best vacation or sabbatical you’ve ever taken. Even better, want to have a career helping people? Email Megan@crisistextline.org or go to https://www.crisistextline.org/careers-internships/!
  4. To scale this system, we need help from vendors and service partners like these folks: https://stackshare.io/crisis-text-line

Have other ideas? We’d love to hear from you.