Nonprofits provide digital crisis counseling services using online chat or text via a computer or mobile device. These services augment the traditional telephone counseling hotline services provided by organizations that support survivors of domestic or intimate partner violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and many other issues. While phone hotlines have been in use for decades, it is only in the last five years that digital counseling has become more widely available through text and chat.
In September of 2011, loveisrespect premiered the nations first dating abuse text service. In October of 2013, the National Domestic Violence Hotline premiered live chat services. More recently, services like CrisisTextLine, RAINN and others have begun providing services via text and chat. Over the past three years I have worked with a collaborative of domestic violence agencies in San Jose, CA to launch SafeChat Silicon Valley (safechatsv.com) a resource that provides digital crisis counseling services with trained advocates via online and mobile chat to people in Santa Clara county.
Some interesting challenges come with providing counseling via text and chat. An initial concern was losing what can be communicated by a person through their tone of voice on the telephone. Learning the language of chat is also been a challenge for the advocates who staff the chat service, as the many acronyms used via texting are used in counseling conversations (LOL, ROFL, etc). There are also concerns about privacy and security when using a computer or mobile device. These concerns were addressed through research, thoughtful planning and the ongoing training of the advocates who staff the chat line. Thankfully groups like the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV.org) have excellent resources about using technology thoughtfully to provide the safest experience possible.
Providing digital crisis counseling has also come with some surprises – many people are more honest when using text or chat than they are when talking on the phone. The services also allow people to get help in more discreet ways – imagine you are in the back of a car driven by your abuser, you could discreetly text for help when you couldn’t call. Chat and text are also more comfortable channels for young adults, many of whom use those modes of communication more frequently than others.
The successful launching of this service in Silicon Valley required four agencies, all with different staffing, technology comfort levels and resources to work together in a sustained way over several years. My role has been to help guide them through the process, beginning with an initial feasibility study to ascertain if the service would be useful to their communities and if it could be accomplished successfully. This was followed by research into similar services, assessing the technology readiness of the partners, providing guidance around the technology tool options available and helping to steer the implementation process.
Launching a service like this requires time and resources. Thanks to funding from Blue Shield and the county of Santa Clara, the resources were available for planning and implementation. Careful planning was undertaken to ensure the service was implemented well and would provide the same quality of service as the existing hotlines. The planning provided the roadmap for building capacity as well as capabilities within the organizations and resulted in a successful launch of the service in August of 2016.
While national resources of this type are important, having local agencies providing digital crisis counseling services is vital. It is vital for the same reason that it is important to have local service providers staff traditional hotlines. It is the local agencies that are familiar with local services, local support providers, local shelters, local law enforcement and many other relevant resources including local, county and state laws.
It has been very rewarding to watch these agencies come together and sustain their commitment to this project despite the challenges. It proves that with determination, resources and guidance, any nonprofit or group of nonprofits can be successful in this type of technology initiative. I hope to use the experience I have gained through this process to help more agencies provide this vital service to our communities.