Suicide hotline reaching teens through texting

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WESTFIELD, N.J. (AP) — Lynn DeVito received the text message late in the afternoon on New Year's Eve.

"Some nights I just feel so bad. Everyone is asleep but I can't. (I) just don't know if one of these nights it'll be too much and I'll give up," it read.

The text was from a woman in her early 20s who had just moved to New Jersey. The woman, overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and loneliness, which intensified on New Years Eve, said she didn't know where to turn.

"Are you feeling suicidal?" DeVito, a trained volunteer at the CONTACT We Care suicide hotline, typed back.

"Yes," the woman replied. "I just cry in secret until I feel better."

Since the statewide hotline, based in Westfield, introduced the texting service in March, it has received 500 text messages, mostly from teenagers and young adults. The hotline is one of only a handful in the country to add the text option which offers added anonymity and secrecy.

DeVito's conversation with the young woman continued for close to an hour as the two texted back and forth about the root of the woman's depression. The two also discussed what the woman enjoyed and how she could meet people.

"It's definitely nerve-wracking at first," DeVito, 23, said of the texting. "When you talk to someone (on the phone) you can hear their voice and get a sense of where they are, how they're doing. With this, you kind of go at it blind" she told The Star-Ledger of Newark (http://bit.ly/13bYVpy).

Phone hotlines have existed since the 1960s but only in recent years have states like North Carolina, Nevada and now New Jersey expanded them to include online chat services and texting.

Some frightening statistics drove the expansion. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers. Each year, approximately 5,000 young people ages 10 to 24 commit suicide and as many as 25 suicides are attempted for each one that is completed, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

"We're not pleased people are feeling so bad but we're pleased people have somewhere to turn," said Joanne Oppelt, executive director of CONTACT We Care.

The hotline is staffed by more than 100 volunteers who respond to more than 12,000 calls and texts each year.

Volunteers work two-hour shifts two to three times a week answering calls at a Westfield facility and responding to texts through an external computer program.

While the texting option was directed toward teenagers, DeVito, who is pursuing her master's degree in psychology at Columbia University, said one of her most moving exchanges was with a mother of three who found it difficult to break away from her family to make a call. DeVito estimates she talked with the woman 10 to 15 times over the course of three months.

"I think what scared me the most was that these children could lose their mother and how important it was to try to keep her here for them," DeVito said. "No matter how horrible she was feeling I knew whenever I would talk to her she would be ok that night."

The waiting period between a question like "are you suicidal" and receiving an answer can feel interminable, volunteers say, and sometimes never hearing from a person again can leave them uneasy.

But in many cases, people do follow-up, as did a 21-year-old who texted the service last month: "Even though I still need to talk. Thank you. Cause without you guys I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have went... and got help. I chose to do it. I decided I really didn't want to die. I wanted these bad feelings to die. Not everything else."

Texters can reach the hotline by texting "CWC" to 839863 Monday, Wednesday or Friday from 4 to 10 p.m. All texts are anonymous and confidential. The phone hotline is available 24/7 at (908) 232-2880.

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Information from: The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger, http://www.nj.com/starledger

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