Originally published on AFSP.org’s “Lifesaver News”.
We’ve all gotten that text: whether it said “I’m feeling lost,” or “I need help,” or “I don’t know what to do,” we know what it feels like to receive a text from a friend in some kind of crisis. Reading a text from someone in pain, you may feel concerned, helpless, or even panicked.
What makes supporting someone in crisis feel so different over text? For one, many of us still think of texting as an informal medium of communication, reserved for lighthearted chats, quick check-ins, or innocent flirtation. For a lot of people, serious subjects and texting just don’t seem to mesh.
The reality is that text is how a lot of us communicate – not every serious conversation is going to happen face-to-face. In one survey, 75% of Millennials preferred texting over talking on the phone! Knowing this, what nuances do you have to be aware of in texting with a person in crisis?
At Crisis Text Line, text is our medium of choice. We’re all about meeting people where they already are, so text was a natural choice for our modern era. And we’ve learned a lot along the way about how to best use text to provide support to a person in crisis. For the most part, the same principles apply: avoid giving advice, validate feelings, and, above all, listen.
Here are some of our favorite tips for handling the trickier aspects of text:
- Replace silence with reflection. There’s great power in silence when you’re supporting someone, but that’s not an option via text! Instead, use spaces in the conversation to reflect on the person in crisis has shared with you so far. Reflection tells the person that you’re listening and doing your best to understand.
- Don’t be afraid to be direct. When someone you care about may be at risk, it’s important to ask directly if they’re thinking about suicide. If they are, it’s important that they not be alone: if you can’t go to them, find out if another friend or family member can.
- Find balance in your timing. Texting is asynchronous: you get some time to think and revise before sending your reply. You can certainly use that to your advantage, but you also don’t want to leave your friend waiting. This means trying to avoid overthinking your responses: remember that just being there is the most valuable thing you can do.
- Tone can be tricky! We spend a lot of time training our Crisis Counselors to build rapport with texters; of course, if you’re supporting a close friend, rapport isn’t an issue. Even so, conveying the right tone can be hard. Be thoughtful about how your punctuation and grammar are being read, asking yourself things like: ‘Would this be friendlier if I used contractions?’ or, ‘Does that exclamation point seem sarcastic?’
- Privacy. We take texter privacy seriously, following the strictest standards for keeping conversations confidential. Likewise, being mindful of who might see your phone when you’re texting with a friend in crisis is just the right thing to do.
For more general pointers on helping a friend in crisis, see AFSP’s “When Someone is at Risk” resource.