This story appeared in Sunday’s Grand Rapids Herald Review. Please note that TXT4Life presentations are scheduled for Wednesday, January 9 and Wednesday, January 16 for ISD 318 students. For more information visit the Crisis Connection website.

TXT4LifeBy Nathan Bergstedt Herald-Review

There has been discussion recently at the Grand Rapids High School regarding the book “Thirteen Reasons Why,” questioning whether or not it’s suitable learning material due to some passages that are sexual in nature. But that’s not what the book is about. It’s about a teenage girl who decided to commit suicide, and the recordings she left explaining why.

It’s an important story about an important topic. What are the drivers behind teen suicides? What can be done to lessen these suicides?

Beginning in Carlton County in the fall of 2011, a new program called TXT4Life was unveiled, giving teenagers access to professionals with whom they can talk to in confidence, using a technology which they are acclimated: texting.

“I think it’s meeting the kids where they’re at. They’re texting; they’re not calling,” said TXT4Life Regional Coordinator Meghann Condit. “I go around to do school presentations. And in talking to students after the presentations, I’ve had a couple come up to me and say ‘I’ve been suicidal before, and there’s no way I would’ve called, but I would have definitely texted.’”

The texts connect with HSI Crisis Connection, the state-wide crisis call center for individuals in need. With infrastructure already in place to help those in need, the texting option is simply a new technology used to reach out to those in need. The software behind the program was initially created as a crisis contact method during Hurricane Katrina. It was later co-opted for suicide prevention by a school district in Nevada.

The plan in Carlton County was to have the program just within the county the first year, then begin to spread out to neighboring counties the second year, and then all throughout the seven-county area of northeastern Minnesota the third year: Aitkin, Carlton, Cook, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake, and St. Louis. Though based on the success of the program in the first year alone, efforts are underway to include all seven counties less than a year and a half after it’s implementation.

According to Condit, prior to the TXT4Life grant, the Crisis Connection call center received 25 or fewer calls per month from teenagers. So far, only 17,000 students have been through the TXT4Life presentation, and from that the call center has received between 300 and 500 text message conversations per month over the past year.

“I think it puts a little space between them and whoever they’re talking to. It makes it a little less personal, so they’re able to write out what they’re feeling to have someone respond to them,” said Condit.

There will be presentations on Wednesday, Jan. 9, and Wednesday, Jan. 16, for students in ISD 318 regarding the crisis texting program. Students from grades seven through twelve will hear the presentation at Grand Rapids High School, Robert J. Elkington Middle School, and Bigfork School. Students simply need to text “Life” to 839863 in order to receive a response from a crisis counselor at HSI Crisis Connection. Currently the service is only available from 12 p.m. to 12 a.m., though the plan is to make texting 24/7, just as phone calls to the center are. The phone number is 1-800-273-8255.

During off hours, those texting in receive an automatic response with calling options.

“The more resources that students have, the more likely they’ll reach out for them,” said Carrie Fowler, counselor at Grand Rapids High School. “Counselors aren’t always available. Students aren’t always willing to come see a counselor, or to even talk face-to-face with anybody that they trust within the school.”

With the already large response from the small percent of teenagers who have learned about TXT4Life, hopes are high that the resource will continue to prove to be instrumental in social outreach of those in need throughout Minnesota.