The Heartbreaking Text That Inspired a Crisis Help Line: Nancy Lublin at TED Talks (Transcript)

Nancy Lublin

Nancy Lublin – TRANSCRIPT

A girl I’ve never met before changed my life and the life of thousands of other people. I’m the CEO of It’s one of the largest organizations in the world for young people. In fact it’s bigger than the Boy Scouts in the United States. And we’re not homophobic.

And it’s true — the way we communicate with young people is by text, because that’s how young people communicate. So we’ll run over 200 campaigns this year, things like collecting peanut butter for food pantries, or making Valentine’s Day cards for senior citizens who are homebound. And we’ll text them. And we’ll have a 97 percent open rate. It’ll over-index Hispanic and urban. We collected 200,000 jars of peanut butter and over 365,000 Valentine’s Day cards. This is big scale. OK —

But there’s one weird side effect. Every time we send out a text message, we get back a few dozen text messages having nothing to do with peanut butter or hunger or senior citizens — but text messages about being bullied, text messages about being addicted to pot. And the worst message we ever got said exactly this: “He won’t stop raping me. It’s my dad. He told me not to tell anyone. Are you there?”

We couldn’t believe this was happening. We couldn’t believe that something so horrific could happen to a human being, and that she would share it with us — something so intimate, so personal. And we realized we had to stop triaging this and we had to build a crisis text line for these people in pain. So we launched Crisis Text Line, very quietly, in Chicago and El Paso — just a few thousand people in each market. And in four months, we were in all 295 area codes in America. Just to put that into perspective, that’s zero marketing and faster growth than when Facebook first launched.

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Text is unbelievably private. No one hears you talking. So we spike everyday at lunch time — kids are sitting at the lunch table and you think that she’s texting the cute boy across the hall, but she’s actually texting us about her bulimia. And we don’t get the word “like” or “um” or hyperventilating or crying. We just get facts. We get things like, “I want to die. I have a bottle of pills on the desk in front of me.” And so the crisis counselor says, “How about you put those pills in the drawer while we text?” And they go back and forth for a while. And the crisis counselor gets the girl to give her her address, because if you’re texting a text line, you want help. So she gets the address and the counselor triggers an active rescue while they’re texting back and forth. And then it goes quiet — 23 minutes with no response from this girl. And the next message that comes in says — it’s the mom — “I had no idea, and I was in the house, we’re in an ambulance on our way to the hospital.” As a mom that one just — The next message comes a month later. “I just got out of the hospital. I was diagnosed as bipolar, and I think I’m going to be OK.”

I would love to tell you that that’s an unusual exchange, but we’re doing on average 2.41 active rescues a day. Thirty percent of our text messages are about suicide and depression — huge. The beautiful thing about Crisis Text Line is that these are strangers counseling other strangers on the most intimate issues, and getting them from hot moments to cold moments. It’s exciting, and I will tell you that we have done a total of more than 6.5 million text messages in less than two years.

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