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(Up to fifty people, most of them in their late twenties, are available at any given time, depending upon demand, and they can work wherever there’s an Internet connection.) An introductory message from a counsellor includes a casual greeting and a question about why the texter is writing in.

If the texter’s first message is substantive (“My so-called boyfriend is drunk and won’t stop yelling at me”), the counsellor echoes the language in order to elicit additional details (“I’m so sorry to hear that. I’m freaking out”), the reply will be more open-ended, while gently pressing for greater specificity (“So what’s going on tonight? An average exchange takes place over a little more than an hour, longer if there is the risk of suicide.

The act of writing, even if the product consists of only a hundred and forty characters composed with one’s thumbs, forces a kind of real-time distillation of emotional chaos.

Shih was responsible for sending out text messages to teen-agers across the country, alerting them to various altruistic opportunities and encouraging them to become involved in their local communities: running food drives, organizing support groups, getting their cafeterias to recycle more.

Silly, prankish responses were not uncommon, but neither were messages of enthusiasm and thanks.

Then, in August, after six months on the job, Shih received a message that left her close to tears for the rest of the day. “He told me not to tell anyone.” A few hours later, another message came: “R u there? The next day, a response came in: “It’s my dad.”Do had no protocol for anything like this, so Shih texted back with the contact information for Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network*)*, the country’s largest anti-sexual-assault organization. “Not knowing if she was safe or had gotten help or would ever get help consumed my thoughts,” Shih told me last fall. “It was like I’d been punched in the stomach.”That week, Lublin and Shih started work on what two years later became Crisis Text Line, the first and only national, 24/7 crisis-intervention hotline to conduct its conversations (the majority of which are with teen-agers) exclusively by text message.

Each day, on average, Crisis Text Line instigates at least one active rescue of a texter who’s thought to be in immediate danger of suicide.

During active rescues, the counsellor asks questions as casually as possible—Are you alone?

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