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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 2 | Feb. 5, 2004

For Teens in Crisis, Help can be a Click Away

UBC Education professor pilots Web-based crisis hotline for youth

By Erica Smishek

Youth in crisis in the Lower Mainland can now turn to their computers for help.

UBC Education professor Shelley Hymel is piloting Canada's first Web-based "hotline" for youth in collaboration with the Crisis Intervention & Suicide Prevention Centre of B.C. (Crisis Centre in Vancouver) and SAFER (Suicide Attempt Follow-up, Education and Research) Counselling Service.

"Young people are increasingly comfortable with computers and may use the Web to seek support in a time of crisis," says Hymel, an expert on bullying and youth in crisis. "We want to find an effective way to reach them.

"Kids need to talk. If they're talking on the Web, then that's where we need to go."

The Web-based hotline is a place where youth can comfortably talk about issues they are facing at school, at home and in the community, such as relationship or family problems, bullying, racial discrimination, mental health issues, victimization, addictions and more. The site allows youth to connect with volunteers aged 19 to 25 who have been specially trained to provide crisis intervention, psychological first aid, support and resource information.

The site went live in January and is being promoted in Burnaby secondary schools through the 2003/04 school year, with the potential to expand throughout the Lower Mainland. It features a one-on-one free and confidential link enabling youth to talk to someone online, in real time (limited number of hours); an e-mail address for youth to write about their problems and receive a guaranteed response in 24 to 48 hours; the 24-hour Distress Line phone number to the Crisis Centre in Vancouver as well as links to other crisis centres in B.C.; a list of youth-preferred resources available in the Lower Mainland; and information and facts about common problems that youth face, including bullying and harassment, stress, suicidal feelings and teenage pregnancy.

"We did a lot of brainstorming with kids about what would work," says Hymel. "One of our graduate students, Rina Bonanno, conducted focus groups with secondary students and asked them what they wanted on the site. They said, 'give us a professional site that says you mean it, that you really care.'"

Youth were brought in as consultants on content and design - Sean Carleton, for example, provided original artwork that would become the basis for the look of the site; a young person who lost a teenaged brother to suicide last year, shared her experience and ideas.

The initiative began more than a year ago following a talk on bullying Hymel gave at a local Vancouver community centre shortly after a young male victim of bullying committed suicide by jumping from the Patullo Bridge. She was approached by a local businessman who wanted to help victimized kids and kept after her to do something.

An inspired Hymel came up with the idea for an online hotline. The businessman provided $4,500 in seed money for the initiative, and stepped away, never to be heard from again.

She persevered and, through various serendipitous connections, including partnerships with the Crisis Intervention & Suicide Prevention Centre of B.C. and SAFER (part of the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority), received $45,000 from National Crime Prevention Canada's Community Mobilization Program. Critical to the success of this unique online resource was the support of At Large Media and Cossette Interactive Vancouver.

"We jumped in," says Ian Ross, executive director of the Crisis Centre in Vancouver, a registered non-profit organization that has provided free programs and services, including a 24-hour, 7-days a week Distress Line, to people of all ages and walks of life since 1969. "We were on the same wavelength with Shelley and SAFER. It was really natural for us to move into an online service."

Distress Line volunteers receive 60 hours of crisis intervention training and on-going support from professionals from the Crisis Centre in Vancouver.

"We're looking for people with the potential to be good listeners," Ross says of volunteers. "We don't do therapy online. We focus on providing non-judgmental support to callers through the 'art of listening' and then if appropriate provide options and resources."

Kaylie, a 23-year-old UBC psychology graduate, volunteered in order to get experience helping others with similar situations in which she has found herself.

According to her site profile, "The stress of school, a major break-up, and deaths in my family have made this year a tough one for me. Also back when I was 16, I found out I was pregnant. I had a lot of friends to talk to but I really wish I had someone like the Crisis Centre to help me through it. There are so many times when you just need someone to talk to; someone who won't judge you and can't tell anyone else what you tell them because they don't know you."

Researchers will monitor use of the site through June to determine the efficacy of the online hotline. If the Web-based focus proves successful, they hope to secure more funding to keep the site live after June and eventually expand this form of crisis assistance provincially and nationally.

For more information, visit www.youthinbc.com.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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