Samaritans launches youth-focused text-based mental health help line

Health

“It’s incredibly brave for anyone to reach out.”

Samaritans

Whether you are struggling with school or relationships, or just need someone to talk to, texting Hey Sam, which is run by Samaritans, will connect you with a compassionate, non-judgmental listener.

The support service, which was launched last month, provides peer-to-peer support via text for people up to 24 years old.

“The younger generation doesn’t call anymore. You can ask a teenager when the last time they had a phone call was and I don’t know if they’ll be able to give you an answer,” said Jeremiah Mankin, the director for youth support and technology at Samaritans. “Our hope is that this will just meet them where they’re at, in terms of service by text.”

For almost 50 years, Samaritans has provided crisis support via its hotline. Now, in an effort to better serve younger people, the organization has branched out into text-based support.

“We know how many young people are struggling right now in particular, as we continue to navigate the pandemic, but also just in general, how many young people have so many stressors in their lives and that that’s been increasing over time,” said Kathy Marchi, CEO and president of Samaritans. “I think this is a real refinement of what we do and do well. We’re very excited about the possibilities of how this can really impact young people.”

Hey Sam provides peer-to-peer support — the volunteers responding to texts are in the same age range as the users. Abe Wyett, who has been volunteering with Samaritans for a few years, said he thinks keeping volunteers and those reaching out to help closer in age can help bridge a generational divide.

“There’s definitely always a generational leap between different ages. And having that age and like a relatable person, that is definitely more comforting,” he said. “Even just the way people text, given how much kids my age text, you can pick up on how old someone is so quickly. So I mean that in my mind is what’s going to be more effective.”

Zoe Umeh, who has been volunteering with Samaritans for over a year, echoed Wyett’s point and said she prefers text conversations.

“I felt as though I would have a lot more time to properly digest the conversation and respond accordingly, because on the phone you have to make sure you’re not waiting too long,” she said. “So while texting, I feel as though I can take a little bit of time and think about what they’re saying — the best way to respond — and validate whatever is going on in the conversation.”

Though Umeh, who is a senior at Noble and Greenough School, hasn’t yet taken a Hey Sam text specifically, she said the program makes sense to increase Samaritans’s reach with younger people.

“It’s definitely a really nice idea to be able to reach this younger demographic of kids that are enduring a lot of different mental challenges,” she said. “Being a teenager, there’s a lot of different things that you’re enduring with school, outside of school, mentally, hormonally — so it’s nice to have a place where you can talk about those things without necessarily being judged and to have your thoughts and opinions be validated.”

Raleigh Hiler, another Samaritans volunteer, said even though she hasn’t picked up a Hey Sam text specifically, she has answered texts from younger people and, in her experience, they opened up more than older generations over text.

“I just think especially for younger generations … texting is a little bit more their style of communication and sometimes younger generations are more open to just being more vulnerable over texts,” she said. “I think [Hey Sam is] great. I think it’ll definitely open up more people to be more willing to text in.”

Samaritans, which is based in Massachusetts, is widely known as a suicide prevention agency, and while that still remains a main goal, Mankin stressed that Hey Sam is for any situation. He said he hopes Hey Sam can be casual and approachable so young people feel empowered to reach out.

“You don’t have to be suicidal to reach out. You could just talk because maybe you don’t have anyone else to talk to. Maybe you’re not comfortable talking to the people in your life,” he said. “We do risk assess each person that does reach out to us for suicidal ideation, that will be something that I think that we always do, but I think that message is really important: You really can reach out for any reason.”

Marchi said part of the goal of Samaritans’s work is to continue to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.

“One of the amazing things that’s happening, a silver lining, perhaps from the pandemic, is that we’re all talking about mental health concerns and struggles that people are having in a way that we’ve never before,” she said.

Acknowledging that reaching out for help can be incredibly scary, Mankin said he hopes this program can help people reach out before they are in crisis.

“It’s incredibly brave for some people to reach out. It’s incredibly brave for anyone to reach out,” he said. “And the fact that they do, and they do at the numbers that they have been reaching out to Samaritans — it’s really an honor that we get to do the work. It is not a day that goes by where that doesn’t kind of come across my mind, like this is really special work.”

Mankin hopes that part of the appeal of Hey Sam is its ease of use — mostly because for younger generations texting requires less commitment than being on a phone call.

“You could pick up your phone, you could send a message, you could put it down. It could be texting while you’re at the dinner table or with your family or the back of a school bus,” he said. “It’s a really private, personal way to communicate, and we definitely have seen youth take advantage of that.”

Since the program is staffed by volunteers, like Samaritans’s other hotlines, Samaritans staff has developed and is rolling out additional training for Hey Sam volunteers.

“With the new youth program we’ve added supplemental online coursework that includes issues centered around issues that come up with youth,” said Mia Terracino, the youth services coordinator. “We talk about those issues like bullying or abuse or just mental health within our youth [volunteers]and how they might come up on the helpline — so how they might come up across Hey Sam and what to do in this specific situation.”

Volunteers can be as young as 15 years old and more information can be found online.

Mankin said there are a lot of support systems already in place for volunteers, even if they have had to shift during the pandemic.

“Currently, we have what we call home leaders. They’re very experienced volunteers that have gone above and beyond and kind of through the ranks of volunteering, and they’re like the first line of support,” he said. “If a volunteer is struggling, or needs help on a call or after a call to debrief a call, your home leader is there 24/7 available to talk with you.”

Beyond home leaders, Samaritans also has a 24/7 on-call staff member, runs debrief groups, and community events in an effort to bring back some of the connection volunteers felt pre-pandemic.

“The support is pretty unparalleled,” Wyett said. “Often if you’re doing the same shift [you are with] the same home leader, at least that’s been my experience, so you get to know one home leader at least really, really well. The one I have the meeting with every week, I talk to her every week for at least like 10 minutes in between calls. So I’ve gotten to know her really well — that’s a comforting source of support.”

Hey Sam started after state Sen. Becca Rausch approached Samaritans with the idea. The organization worked with Rausch to obtain critical resources and funding for the program.

Hiler joined originally because of a program at Boston College, where she is a junior, but said she is glad she stuck with it because of the tremendous capacity to help even a short phone call can have.

“The people on the helplines definitely want to listen, like they definitely want to be there,” she said. “They want [to be there] every time a text comes in or a call comes in. It’s not a burden. They want to hear it.”

All of Samaritans’s help lines offer up one thing: Someone to listen to whatever anyone is feeling.

“It’s OK to not feel OK. There’s just so much pressure going through school and society, and it’s OK to feel whatever you’re feeling,” Terracino said. “If you’re suicidal, you’re not suicidal, you’re struggling with school, your relationships, anything, and you want like a compassionate, non-judgmental listener, … just text in any time and you’ll get someone back who will give you that unconditional positive regard.”

Hey Sam is available 9 am-9 pm EST at 1-877-832-0890. Samaritans 24/7 Helpline is available by call or text at 877-870-4673.

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