New text hotline called a ‘lifeline’ in teens’ pockets

Published 10:22 am Thursday, March 14, 2013

ST. PAUL — The name says it all: TXT4Life.

Minnesota lawmakers are moving to add the text message-based suicide prevention program to the existing statewide phone hotline, citing figures from a pilot program in northeastern Minnesota that show teens would rather send a text than make a call for help.

By sending just four letters —“life” — to a special code number, a teen in need starts texting with a counselor who can talk them down, refer them to others who can help or, if necessary, call in emergency help.

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More than 600 people in Minnesota committed suicide in 2010, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Esko Democrat Rep. Mike Sundin said he had that demand in mind with his bill, which passed the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee on Wednesday.

Since a TXT4Life pilot launched in seven counties in northeast Minnesota more than a year ago, counselors have texted with more than 400 people a month on average. By comparison, the hotline has received fewer than 15 calls a month from people throughout the state.

Dave Lee called it “a lifeline in (teens’) pocket, immediately available when they most need it.” As Carlton county’s director of Public Health and Human Services, Lee helped set up and run the pilot with a $1.4 million federal grant. Word spread fast. Despite the initial seven-county scope, counselors have chatted with people from 48 Minnesota counties.

To offer services statewide, TXT4Life would need about $2.5 million annually, Lee said. That would fund trips to middle and high schools to teach about the text line and get students to program the number into their phones, just in case. It would also help staff counselors around the clock. The text line currently runs from noon to midnight.

“In that moment of crisis, we know that having someone available to them is the most critical opportunity we have to intervene and save a person’s life,” said Mark Kuppe, a psychologist who has also helped run the program.

Lawmakers will next take up the question of how much money, if any, the state should provide to fund the program. Sundin said he hopes the health finance committee doesn’t lose sight of the importance of saving lives.

“This issue is a lot bigger than just numbers at the bottom of a page,” Sundin said.