By: Yiwen Zhu
It is hard to believe that I am coming close to my two-year mark of being a Crisis Counselor at Crisis Text Line. By definition, Crisis Text Line is a free crisis intervention service provided via SMS messages, available 24/7 to texters in the US, Canada, and the UK (where it is named SHOUT). Like many other fellow Crisis Counselors, I was initially drawn to this specific volunteering opportunity because I wanted to be there for people who needed someone to talk to in a moment of crisis. However, it turned out to be much more than that. As I reflect on my two-year journey as a Crisis Counselor, one thing that particularly stands out is how much of a better researcher I’ve become because of all the inspiring, touching, and motivating moments I had. In this blog post, I wanted to talk about a few of those moments and how they have changed or validated my thoughts about mental health research.
1. Big data can lead to powerful and accessible communication.
One of my favorite things about Crisis Text Line is that the organization values insights from big data, which can be defined as extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions. Crisis Text Line uses analysis of big data to effectively communicate findings with Crisis Counselors as well as the public.
As a data analyst and statistics enthusiast, I was thrilled when I stumbled upon Crisis Trends, which shows analyses from this massive amount of data. They used aggregated data from text conversations to create compelling and informative graphics to tell stories about mental health: In which state do people experience more depression? What issues co-occur with substance abuse? On which day of the week do people feel the most anxious?
I especially love the word clouds that highlight phrases that appear the most frequently related to each topic. For example, depression is so much more than one plain word; it can be the overpowering feeling that permeates someone’s life, existing in interactions with family, friends, and literally “everything.” The word clouds paint the picture of what depression means to thousands of texters in a direct and powerful way.
The way Crisis Text Line uses data to communicate findings has inspired me to appreciate data visualization more in our own research. I now spend a lot of time thinking about how to let our data tell the story of our findings in graphs and tables that are easily digestible. Science may be complex sometimes, but key findings do not have to be buried in jargons and equations.
2. Scientific evidence can get translated into intervention, quickly.
As a Crisis Counselor, we get a newsletter every week that talks about what data scientists at Crisis Text Line have found using data collected from the text conversations. I always look forward to reading those, because to me, it is an important component of “evidence-based practice”. Analyses of rich text data from conversations in the past week can guide how we approach crisis counseling during our next shift, and I am always amazed by the wide range of questions that can be addressed using data: When do we expect the highest volume in the following week and when we should we sign up for a shift? How long should the conversation last to make it the most effective? What should we say to a texter who is fighting an urge to harm themselves? As a Crisis Counselor, it is truly empowering to know that the action we are taking is supported by research.
Seeing that scientific evidence can quickly inform intervention is empowering to me in another sense too, because as a researcher, I get to be on the other side of the table. Now when I analyze data and interpret results, I keep the intervention and policy implication in mind. I try to focus on what practitioners want to know and how to distill the numbers into actionable items without oversimplifying the uncertainty that always exists in data analysis. It is a challenging goal, but with every effort, I think I’m getting a bit closer.
3. Conversations with texters may give rise to the best scientific questions.
While I love thinking about data and cannot stop talking about it every day, I really enjoy that sometimes when I am doing a shift as a Crisis Counselor, I forget about data for a few hours. Engaging in conversations with people who need to talk allows me to take a step back and clear up my mental space to think about what the questions are that matter to me, without getting into minutia of data analysis, such as the coding of measures or statistical assumptions.
For example, I have wondered what makes people resilient as a result of conversations I have had with texters who have a history of experiencing trauma, but kept a positive attitude on life and showed amazing coping skills. Additionally, seeing how people reacted to referrals to other resources differently begs the questions about whether, when, and to whom would emotional support versus practical resources be the most helpful. When people talk about how they know what they should be thinking yet still cannot convince themselves, the cognitive process behind the reasoning intrigues me. After each shift, I try to take some time for myself, and I always find more and more research questions flowing from those conversations with people I don’t know in real life, but have genuinely connected to, heart-to-heart.
4. There is a bigger community beyond the academic world.
Being a Crisis Counselor at Crisis Text Line does not only spark more passion for mental health research, but it also keeps me grounded. Every conversation reminds me why I am in this field, and why studying mental health is important. Like Erin said in her post about the One Mind Annual Music Festival for Brain Health, “people are counting on us” and I feel it the strongest when I am sitting in front of my computer, talking with texters who have reached out to Crisis Text Line.
As a scientist in training, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the anxiety before presentations, imposter syndrome being a very junior member of a renowned academic institute, and stress about the highly competitive career path before me. Those are legitimate everyday concerns and sometimes they make me forget that we are doing research to solve issues that cause profound suffering in the bigger community. Bringing a texter who is struggling from “a hot moment” to a “cool calm” helps me remember that ultimately, I am doing research for those who are in pain. Therefore, it is crucial to not over-intellectualize research questions and to persevere in the face of challenges.
My most memorable moment with Crisis Text Line in the past two years was when I looked at my “Texters’ Sentiment” word cloud for the first time, which showed the phrases that appeared the most frequently in feedback I received from texters I have talked to. There was a big “THANK YOU” and a “HELP” which gave me all the warm fuzzies. But then a small line in the corner caught my eye: “will try” - I burst into tears. Knowing that someone who was struggling and thinking about giving up will instead try to give it a shot based on our conversation makes everything worthwhile. Whenever I feel like I’m running out of steam, I close my eyes and I see that small line of text. And that’s just what I need to keep going.
This week is the annual National Suicide Prevention Week, and I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on my journey, and say thank you to Crisis Text Line, for making crisis intervention more accessible for those in need and for inspiring me to be a better researcher.