Text for life

One of the challenges of the modern age is dealing with how things have changed. In industry after industry, ways of working that have succeeded for generations are suddenly undergoing seismic shifts. We all get used to the convenience of our gadgets, but then this changes how we do things, and suddenly everything we were used to no longer works in ways that we expect.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the ways we communicate. Once upon a time the Post Office was a license to print money; now it’s only going to deliver mail every other day. Teens used to spend hours talking on the phone; now they think it’s odd to make a phone call. We’re able to broadcast our lives to our family, friends, and beyond. Clearly, what feels comfortable and natural in the ways that we communicate is changing.

So what happens if your aim is to communicate with people in their most vulnerable moments? Psychologists are concerned with the provision of mental health services, and making sure that people in need get effective assistance. The classic “psychiatrist’s couch” image is now largely defunct, but face-to-face communication is still encouraged. For many years, though, it has been recognized that it is not always possible for the provider of assistance and the person in need to get together. After all, the moments that we need help are not neatly organized within normal working hours and while we are close to a professional that we have come to trust. More likely, it is 2am and we’re alone. At that moment, if we decide that we need help, for the last 50 years we’ve probably picked up the phone and called a helpline. But how does that work for a new generation that uses their phones for everything except making calls?

The answer, increasingly, is to provide services using modes of communication that target groups feel comfortable with. For teens, one of those is text messaging. On the face of it, text messaging seems a poor model to build mental health services around, since communication is put through a narrow channel that requires thumb-typing, and limits the ability of the client to develop rapport with the counsellor. However, in a recent paper, my colleagues Dr Kerry Gibson and Dr Claire Cartwright explore the experiences of teens using a New Zealand text messaging counselling service. This service, run by Youthline, has been running for 10 years and receives 10,000-20,000 texts per month. Kerry and Claire found that young clients liked many of the aspects of the service that their parents might find limiting. For example, typing on a phone means that the users could engage in conversation with the counsellors without raising suspicions of those around them. In addition, while the anonymity of text messaging reduces the strength of connection between counsellor and client, it equally allows the teen user to engage in mental health services without committing themselves to disclosing more than they feel comfortable with. Finally, the normality of texting made the users feel more comfortable with the service, to the point that some remarked it felt similar to when they communicated with friends.

Modes of communication will continue to evolve, and so will methods of facilitating positive mental health. And just as social media use varies between kids, parents, and grandparents, no single mode of mental health services will prevail. The main thing is to provide services in the best way to as many people as possible in the moment that they are most needed. Kerry reports that this research allowed Youthline to better understand the ways in which this service was reaching and helping the young people that used it. Such work will be vital in the future as mental health services continue to diversity and embrace all the methods of communication that we use with each other.

NOTE: If you feel the need to communicate with a counsellor, in New Zealand free text 234 to contact Youthline; or using more traditional technology call 0800 376 633. Similar services exist in many other countries.

For more information on Dr Kerry Gibson’s research, click here:

For more information on Dr Claire Cartwright’s research, click here:

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