Bright Idea: Live Chat Crisis Services Give Youth One More Way to Connect


Photo montage of teen girl using a laptop to talk to a helping adult on another laptop.Like most youth workers, the staff at Common Ground crisis center in Royal Oak, MI, knew that young people were spending more and more time online. Even so, Common Ground staff have been surprised by the response to their one-on-one live chat crisis line. When it opened in early May, the chat got a few clients each weekday. Now, it handles several dozen. In one case, the service may have even saved a life.

Jennifer James, Common Ground’s Crisis Line Supervisor and Crisis Chat Line Coordinator, says one night a shy 14 year-old girl typed to a facilitator that she was feeling suicidal. Common Ground was able to get emergency services to her house and prevent a tragedy.

Common Ground offers a 24-hour phone hotline for youth and adults seeking mental health services. But James says many youth cherish their anonymity, and a live chat service enables them to get help without even giving away their gender or the sound of their voice.

“On the phone, youth aren’t so trusting,” James says. “But on the computer, you can’t hear them crying, and can’t tell their emotional state. They think they need to shield themselves, so it’s easier to have a conversation over text for them.”

Offering one-on-one live chat to clients may be a good option for organizations that already offer crisis intervention and are looking for a way to reach more teens. James and Brian Pinero, who directs, a national dating-violence prevention website, shared advice for getting started.

Choosing Software

Pinero and James advise buying chat software that a third-party company can manage when troubles arise. Loveisrespect decided on a program called LivePerson, and Common Ground uses iCarol, which is built specifically for nonprofit and charity crisis lines. Common Ground also partners with Contact USA, a national support network for helplines.  

Staffing the Chat

Common Ground requires chat facilitators to undergo the same crisis intervention training that their phone hotline facilitators take. The six-week course focuses on issues ranging from sexual abuse to arguments with parents.

In addition to being well-trained, people who staff a chat line have to be very comfortable with online, written communication, where they can’t pick up cues from a caller’s voice. “The majority of our chat specialists are under 30,” James says, “because of their greater comfort level with the computer. They’re college age and have that natural ability to converse through text messaging and gather the tone of a chat pretty quickly.”

Responding to Growth

Pinero says whether you intend it or not, live chat may open your services up to youth around the globe.

“That’s the biggest thing about this technology,” he says. “You’re not just opening it to the community, you’re opening it to the world. We’ve had people contact us from Finland, and they want help.”

So have a strategy for responding to increased demand. Pinero suggests recruiting volunteers to pick up some of the extra shifts.

Youth-Serving Organizations With Live Chat:

Common Ground

National Runaway Switchboard

The Trevor Project

More From NCFY

“Bright Idea: Texting for Teen Health”

“Using Technology in Family and Youth Work”

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