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“I sometimes worry that it would come across as too ‘Oh, I got you! Neutral language allows the texter to feel anonymous. But this is precisely what one is not supposed to do when communicating with a teen-ager in crisis.These people have contacted a stranger for a reason. Often, the conversations are about minor-seeming problems—fights with friends, academic pressure from parents—and the bar for helpfulness is quite low. Nobody ever does that,’ and at other times it’s less explicit; they just want to get everything out, and they provide you with a very, very detailed account.”The etiquette encouraged for counsellors can be surprising. Instead, counsellors are trained to deploy language that at first seems inflammatory: “You must be devastated” is a common refrain; so is “That sounds like torture.” The idea is to validate texters’ feelings and respond in a way that doesn’t belittle them.The act of writing, even if the product consists of only a hundred and forty characters composed with one’s thumbs, forces a kind of real-time distillation of emotional chaos.
The young people who contact Crisis Text Line might be doing so between classes, while waiting in line for the bus, or before soccer practice.The average adolescent sends almost two thousand text messages a month. For teens, texting isn’t a novel form of communication; it’s the default.They contact their friends more by text than by phone or e-mail or instant-message or even face-to-face conversations. People who spent their high-school years chatting with friends on landlines are often dismissive of texting, as if it might be a phase one outgrows, but the form is unparalleled in its ability to relay information concisely.“A lot of times, when chatting with young people, it’s clear that they just need someone to listen to them,” one counsellor told me. When an agitated friend texts me bad news (a breakup, a layoff, a sudden rent increase), my instinct is to find a positive response to the predicament (“But you didn’t even like him! Thomas Joiner, a psychology professor at Florida State University and one of the country’s leading suicide experts, pointed out another way in which conversational norms can be counterproductive.“From a clinical standpoint, one common misstep is tiptoeing around issues and treating them like taboos,” he said.