The loud ping from an incoming message or the slight vibration of a new text message are familiar sounds for most people, but for volunteers with a Greater Victoria-based digital crisis line, the sound is a call for help.
When a message comes in, volunteers are prepared to help the young person on the other line manage their crisis, which could range from a problem in a relationship with a girlfriend or boyfriend to someone expressing suicidal thoughts.
“For youth, it gives them a lot of autonomy and places that they can reach out … I think there’s value in having a place you can talk to where it’s going to be anonymous and confidential,” said Liz Radermacher, manager of the youth space program.
“It can be a practice run where they can say ‘I’m gay, I’m thinking about suicide or I have feelings for this person’ and it may be easier for them when they go and face that real conversation.”
The digital crisis line, called the youth space program and put on by Need2 Suicide Prevention Education and Support, operates from 6 p.m. to midnight PST all year, supporting youth from across Canada who are under the age of 30.
Unlike traditional hot lines in which people phone in, the digital hot line allows youth to communicate with volunteers through instant messaging services and text message.
Originally started as a pilot project in 2007/2008, the number of people accessing the service has grown dramatically from 128 chats in its first year to 2,700 in 2016/2017. In 2017/2018 chats doubled to 5,588. Radermacher believes that number has spiked because more people are aware of the service.
The number of chats vary throughout the year, but they usually see a spike around the end of January and February and another spike in September and October, which often correlates with people going back to school.
Working three to four-hour shifts, volunteers usually receive the highest amount of chats regarding mental and emotional distress, such as someone suffering from anxiety and depression. The second highest amount of chats involve suicide or self injury, followed by problems with relationships, Radermacher said.
On average, chats last about 40 minutes during which time volunteers focusing on feelings and letting the person tell their story. However, there are instances when the person will start to give indications that they are thinking about suicide, at which point volunteers are trained to ask directly.
“A lot of the time, it’s very hard for someone to say directly ‘I’ve been thinking about killing myself’, so we ask it for them so that we can open that door and that usually results in a very frank conversation about the reality of those thoughts and whether the young person intends on acting on them,” Radermacher said.
But for Radermacher reaching out for help is the first step, and is an indication they may not want to act on their thoughts. She believes the digital crisis line is making a difference in people’s lives.
“Especially for people reaching out for help, it’s an indication that not 100 per cent of their being is committed to suicide. We see it as there’s a portion that still wants to talk about the alleviation of that pain and the possibility of a future,” she said, noting if someone is concerned a young person is at risk of suicide right away, they will contact emergency services in the area.
“I really believe that when someone is able to tell their story and tell their pain that’s a powerful connection between human beings that can be very healing. I really believe in the power of that.”
For more information about the digital crisis line visit youthspace.ca or text 778-783-0177.