Health

What It’s Like to Be a Text Crisis Counselor in the Middle of a Pandemic

"If they mention suicide at the very beginning, when the chat pops up it's orange-colored."
April 27, 2020, 7:26pm
A pair of hands holding a cell phone.
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Kristy Hixon is a teacher in Forth Worth, Texas, who volunteers at the Crisis Text Line, a texting “hotline” for people dealing with anxiety, depression, loneliness or any other mental health issue. As the pandemic has triggered anxiety and isolated millions of people, volunteers like Hixon have been receiving an increasing number of coronavirus-related texts, many from kids who are stuck at home and going through all sorts of crises. Some are as young as 12. We talked to Hixon about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of distressed texts.

When we first have the texter, I always introduce myself by name and ask for their name. Sometimes I'll get a name, sometimes I don't. I've had a lot who want to make sure that we are confidential and I say yes—unless there is a risk that you are going to hurt yourself. If they mention suicide at the very beginning, when the chat pops up it's orange-colored.

Then they will state whatever's going on with them, and I'll validate them. I always tell them that I'm here to support you through this. I use, You are brave, You are strong, You are courageous. Just letting them know that reaching out does take a lot of courage and I really appreciate them reaching out for help.

Then I start exploring what made them text in. Did something happen that day or has this been going on for a while? How have they dealt with it in the past? And then we start working toward problem-solving. What can I do tonight to calm myself? What can I do in the next few days to help me through this?

The first texter I ever had was a person having anxiety. We try to keep our conversations to 40 messages if they're not high-risk, and I was very stressed out because I could not seem to wrap up. She just wanted to keep chatting. It was about an hour and a half conversation, but I felt really good at the end of it that I really helped her through her anxiety.

We get a lot of anxiety and depression. Before COVID-19, I had a lot of relationships, lots of breakups from high-school kids. We get kids texting in about their parents. They've had a fight and they need to talk to someone that's not their friend. We get a lot of anxiety about school, especially college-age students, high school seniors. I've talked to many adults, but it seems to be mostly young: middle school, high school, college. I feel like they feel a lot more comfortable through texts. It's kind of what they're used to.

Now I still get a lot of anxiety and there seem to be a lot of fights with parents lately, just because we're all stuck at home. I've had a lot more texts about loneliness and just feeling lonely and depressed at home. Especially from those that are living alone. They're feeling a lot of sadness where it's kind of starting to lead into depression. I've seen some anxiety come out of it: What happens if I get sick and I'm all alone?

I just say those validations again, like, I am here for you. I'm here to support you through this. I try to give them hope that this is not going to last very long. And then we start talking about coping strategies, we try to brainstorm some ideas. Maybe they could Zoom with somebody, find some online forums where they can chat. They could give their friends a call each day.

I feel like I've talked to a lot more younger people during the pandemic, even 12-year-olds. This is all new for them to suddenly be away from their friends and from school. School is sometimes a safe haven for them, it's an escape from what they're going through at home. And we now have kids in those homes that are struggling and they don't have a place where they can go. It's harder to get ahold of their friends—and so the Crisis Text Line is available for them to reach out to.

Most people do open up. Sometimes they're very hesitant about talking to a stranger and they'll ask if we're a robot. I know crisis counselors who will make a spelling mistake and say, would a robot make a mistake?

We try not to give advice and we try to have them discover it on their own. We just kind of lead them to that. Like, what did you do for yourself today? Or what could you do for your friend to make sure they know you're there? We do have a resource that has 99 coping skills. I use that a lot. But we get a lot of just, I just need to vent. And sometimes when you just let them talk, they'll say, Well, I feel better. Thank you so much for listening.

For my own mental health, it helps me separate a little bit because I haven't heard their voice. Sometimes not hearing that desperation, that sadness, has helped me disconnect from the conversations. At the end of your shift, your supervisor will come on and say, make sure you get some good self-care tonight before you go to bed. They just try to make it as positive as they can on there and that has helped tremendously.

The Crisis Text Line is currently raising money through the Mental Health Fund. If you are feeling anxious about COVID-19 or anything else and want to talk a crisis counselor, text HOME to 741741.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.