VIA LINK Starts New Texting Program For People In Crisis

June 2, 2015

VIA LINK provides information, referrals, training and crisis intervention to people, organizations and communities so they can help themselves and others.

The VIA LINK call center is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to listen, answer questions and provide resources to people who call 211 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If a caller is in crisis, the confidential counselor who answers will start helping them on the spot.

Lavondra Dobbs, CEO for VIA LINK, says the counselor will begin assessing the caller’s needs, “listening to their story, seeing how they can best help them prioritize their needs to be addressed and provide some information and resources for them.”

VIA LINK is housed in New Orleans, but answers 211 calls for 10 Louisiana parishes. VIA LINK also answers about half of Louisiana’s National Suicide Prevention Lifeline calls. In total, that’s about 60,000 calls each year.

“VIA LINK actually started as a grassroots organization,” says Dobbs. “A group of volunteers came together knowing that people needed help and knowing that the resources were out there, but people didn’t know how to get those resources or didn’t know they existed. So they started collecting that information and sharing it and getting it out there. And those grew into what are now the 211’s today. There are about 266 211’s nation-wide that cover 93 percent of the United States. That’s a free service that’s there.”

But over the years, VIA Link has seen a decrease in calls from young people. Why? Texting.

“I have a 25-year-old and a 16-year-old,” says Dobbs. “If I call them, they don’t answer; if I text them I get an immediate answer. So we thought if we could offer texting to youth, they would access mental health.”

University studies confirm that youth are in crisis three times more than anyone else. VIA LINK needed to reach them. So this July, they’ll launch a crisis texting program which will go into full swing by August, when young people return to school.

“We expect they’ll be texting about bullying, self harm, eating disorders, sexual or physical abuse, sexuality and thoughts of suicide,” says Dobbs.

Texting may do more than reach young people. Chances are, it will help them more effectively.

“Texters get to the problem much quicker and bond with a counselor more quickly and really share what’s going on with them,” hopes Dobbs. “A level of trust tends to build much quicker.”

“They may call about the fact that they’re cutting, or that they’re being molested by someone, or that they have a friend who has a very serious problem and they don’t know how to help them,” says a confidential counselor. “And when they hear me say other kids call with the same problems and we help them work through that, I hear the tone change.”

They realize they are not alone – their problems aren’t so unique that others can’t understand, says one of VIA LINK’s confidential telephone counselors. She adds, with texting:

“It may be a little bit more comfortable because they don’t have to think about what to say — those very first bits of conversation,” continues the counselor. “One of the things I hear very often is: I’ve never called a line like this before.  I don’t know what to say. I don’t know where to start. And I’ll just start with, ‘something was bothering you today. What did you want to tell me?’”

And with texting – where conversation gets right to the point – VIA LINK hopes to help more young people open up.

Written by Eve Abrams for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. Learn more about VIA LINK.