Crisis Text Line, the first free 24-hour text support system for people in crises which utilizes in part the University of Michigan’s privacy and security policies, was made available as a resource for researchers on February 16, with the potential to broaden understanding of mental illness in youth. Researchers interested in using the service’s data must apply for access.

Along with the University’s policies, the Crisis Text Line data set also uses policies established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health.

Launched in 2013 by CEO Nancy Lublin, Crisis Text Line is a service for those experiencing personal crises such as depression, suicidal ideation, coming out as gay, bullying and sexual or physical abuse, according to the comapny’s Chief Data Scientist Bob Filbin.

Depression, a common mental health issue, affects nearly 14.8 million American adults, according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Among youth, untreated depression is the number one risk for suicide. When someone texts the Crisis Text Line, they immediately receive an automated message asking about the type of crisis they are experiencing. Within a few minutes, a live and trained crisis counselor will begin responding to the texts to help the texter with their crisis.

The Crisis Text Line has not yet begun working with any researchers, as the first round of applications opened February 16 and will close April 1. Following the close of the application, those at the Crisis Text Line will spend two months reviewing the project applications, and will release the data on June 1 to the first cohort of researchers. Filbin said the company’s data is crucial in promoting and encouraging research on personal crises because as the first of its kind, it’s able to reach a new group of individuals seeking help.

To date, the Crisis Text Line has exchanged 14.5 million text messages between texters and crisis counselors, making it the largest data set on crisis in the United States, Filbin said. The count increases by roughly one million messages per month. 

LSA sophomore Mary O’Brien, president of the University’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness — an organization which focuses on mental health advocacy on campus — said she thought services like these are an important resources because of the atmosphere surrounding mental illness.

“Especially in the competitive culture at U of M, many students don’t seek help because it’s easy to mistake symptoms of a mental illness for normal academic stress,” O’Brien said. “Without seeking help, the stress can snowball and make the problem worse. Crisis text lines, I think, are particularly effective because a lot of students name preferring to deal with their issues on their own and not having time as two major reasons for why they do not seek help. I think crisis text lines address both of these problems.”

O’Brien said she believes, especially in a technological age, crisis text lines are the best way for people in need to receive immediate help.

“Technology is becoming an increasingly important tool for reaching people in crisis,” O’Brien said. “Crisis text lines specifically succeed in reaching people who might not otherwise seek help for mental illness.”

“We think that this data, when shared with researchers that have been starved for access to this kind of data, is really going to allow the crisis space to increase its effectiveness as a whole in supporting people in crisis,” Filbin said.

The process behind allowing researchers to access the data, according to Filbin, includes an online application requiring approval from a college’s Institutional Review Board, as well as approval from the Crisis Text Line Data Ethics Committee.

Filbin said any research project that is accepted to use the data set has to reach four benchmarks: ethics, privacy, security and value.

Those who text the Crisis Text Line often expect to get help while simultaneously remaining anonymous. Because of this, Filbin said the service provides an electronic privacy policy at the start of each conversation and will assure anonymity when releasing the data for further research.  

“It’s an anonymous service, so when you text in we don’t require that you provide any demographic information or name,” Filbin said. “Our rule is, we only ask for information when it’s valuable to the texter.”

In extreme cases, however, Filbin said a texter’s address is requested to direct emergency services to their location.

The Crisis Text Line also operates through an enclave data system, meaning all of the data stays within their system. Researchers accepted to utilize the data will log in through a network through a secure data enclave. As an additional precaution, the service “scrubs” the conversations of any personally identifiable information that was shared by the texter prior to the data’s release to researchers.

So far, more than 100 research teams have expressed interest in gaining access to the data, and applications have exemplified a wide range of projects, Filbin said. For example, researchers from the United States Department of Transportation are interested in looking at how the data might be applicable in reducing railroad suicide. A team at the Kempe Center of the Children’s Hospital in Colorado is focusing on revealing better ways of identifying cases of child abuse, and researchers at the University of Utah are interested in the relationship between altitude and suicidal ideation.

Filbin said he looks forward to improving the quality of the Crisis Text Line service on an internal level, as well as improving the quality of crisis counseling nationwide through each research expert who gains access to the data.

“I think it’s definitely a unique data set that has a lot of potential to really make a difference for people in crisis,” Filbin said.


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