DocForeman: I’m here with Jill Wolski, an innovator and thought leader in technology and suicide prevention. Jill, can tell me the story of how you helped found www.crisischat.org?
Wolkski: At our crisis center we started receiving unsolicited emails from people in crisis. People in pretty serious crisis situations, with problems like domestic violence, homelessness, suicidality, and in particular calls from young women and teenage girls. The phone service we were providing wasn’t meeting their needs and we needed to think of innovative ways to reach them. So, I spoke with my boss about an idea I had to use internet chats, and he said, “I think there’s something here, and I think it’s gonna be big.” I was encouraged to give a speech about this at a conference in Chicago and there was a lot of interest from key people in places like Seattle, Austin, Mississipi, all over the U.S. And iCarol started developing their service. And ContactUSA said “Yes, we think this is the future and we want to support it,” and they invested in it. My agency supported me, and I took a lead role, but so many agencies and people were involved. We pulled the best of what was already out there and the portal started in 2010. In April of 2011 the volume just skyrocketed. It became viral.
DocForeman: Do people who are suicidal really go on-line to chat, or is this just a trendy service to offer?
Wolski: Yes. Especially teenagers and young people in their 30s. It can be very hard for teenagers to reach out to an adult. They don’t have the communication skills to talk face to face to an adult about these very serious problems they are facing. In our Crisis Call Centers we talk about something called an abandonment rate, which is the number of calls you can’t get to, for some reason. A typical crisis call center wants to keep their abandonment rate under 5%. On www.crisischat.org the service is so popular we are consistently overwhelmed with the number of crisis chats coming through, especially in the evening. Overall, our abandonment rate is 58%, but in the evenings, due the high volume, it’s 65-75%. Clearly, there is a huge, unmet need for this kind of public service.
DocForeman: What are the biggest challenges that are facing the adoption of technology-based solutions in crisis work?
Wolski: Crisis centers are already so sparsely funded that it is really challenging to bring on such a labor intensive service unless they know that there is a secure funding source. Because once they start a service like www.crisischat.org, you can’t just abandon it, and the people who are depending on it. This is a general challenge faced by nearly all crisis centers.
But, more specifically, because using technology and crisis work is still in the early adoption stage, we are still building professional momentum behind using on-line and text-based crisis intervention.
Also, the chat platform is exposing call center responders to more severe reports of suicidal feelings, as well as a broader and more severe spectrum of mental health problems than ever before. Things like cutting, binging, bullying, homelessness, sexual assault, and substance abuse. Now, for example, we have more cases like someone with an eating disorder coming on to chat so they won’t purge. It’s things like that, which you don’t see as much in a traditional phone call.
DocForeman: Where are the opportunities in technology and crisis work?
Wolski: I think that we need to do much more of what we are doing. We need to expand the modalities. Chat is just the beginning. We need to provide as many different ways for people in crisis to easily reach out for help and get a compassionate connection with another human being as possible. Technology is just a tool for facilitating a life-saving human connection. The key is to make it easy. Calling a crisis line is so hard for so many people.
DocForeman: If you could send one message to the public about crisis work and technology, what would that be?
Wolski: That it reaches people who would not reach out in any other way. There is research from the Australian crisis chat pilot. They found that 38% of the people on chat had never reached out to anyone before, and would not reach out except through a chat portal. What we’re getting here is a previously un-touched population of people in crisis, often young women. We’re providing service to people who, before, had no other mental health support. It works.
Jill Wolski works as the Crisis Center Director at Family and Children’s Service of the Capital Region for last seven years. She has an M.S.W. from Hunter College School of Social Work. Her personal mission is to connect people who need help with people who can help.