Crisis Text Line Will Help Denver Schools Deal With “Fire Hydrant of Mental Health Needs”


By Catie Cheshire

Abraham, a junior at Denver’s Manual High School, tries to juggle getting good grades, participating in extracurricular activities and prepping himself for getting into a good college. That juggling act can get tough.

“My friends are involved in a lot,” he says, “so we’re always just trying to find a way to manage it.”

Crisis Text Line could help. The nonprofit organization offers 24/7 mental health support and just won a $326,000 grant from the Caring for Denver Foundation to expand its services in the Mile High City.

Feeling overwhelmed recently, Abraham texted Crisis Text Line at the urging of school nurse Lucy Roberts.

“It didn’t take long to connect with someone, and they were trying to find the root cause of what was actually wrong and look into what I could do for stress relief,” he recalls.

The service was comfortable because it was easy to reach on his phone and he felt anonymous as he asked for help, he says. Now he has some new strategies for managing stress and knows where to go if he gets into a bad spot again.

Abraham is just one of many students that Roberts hopes Crisis Text Line can help. “I have seen mental health issues increase in the last three to four years,” she says. “Probably going from like 50 percent of what I used to do in my job as a clinical nurse to more like 80 percent of the work I do with adolescents involves their mental health now.”

Roberts is a member of a group of nurses in Denver’s public schools; the group recently conducted a district assessment and found that 86 percent of the work nurses do is related to mental health needs. Having another tool to combat those problems — one with which kids are comfortable — is a boon.

“This is an immediate comfort zone for them,” she says. “They know how to present their feelings succinctly in a text chain. … It’s meeting them exactly where they are, which I think is so key in being able to tackle this fire hydrant of mental health needs.”

The Caring for Denver Foundation was established through a 2018 ballot initiative that dedicates 25 cents of every $100 spent in the city to addressing mental health and substance misuse. Lorez Meinhold, executive director of the foundation, says that the state’s youth suicide rate is a major reason it wanted to invest in Crisis Text Line. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, suicide is a leading cause of death for Colorado’s youth.

With the new funding, Crisis Text Line will recruit additional volunteer counselors to serve under a licensed clinical professional that it will hire to oversee the project; it plans to partner with Metropolitan State University’s master’s of social work program to bring in forty students to aid in crisis support. If people who reach out need more help than they can get through the text line, they will be connected to additional local resources.

“This is not meant to be a one-size-fits-all — none of our resources are — but there is a set of youth that maybe don’t feel as comfortable getting services in schools, or outside of schools, or have a crisis late at night,” Meinhold says. “Crisis Text Line is meant to be an additional safe space and additional resource for young people who are struggling through that stress, through breakups, through thoughts of self-harm and suicidal thoughts.”

In her experience, Roberts says, students are more likely to use this text line than to book an appointment. The thought of calling someone on the phone, dealing with insurance and appointment times and finding transportation can be overwhelming. But sending a text is easy: Kids do it every day.

“To me, it’s just a no-brainer,” she says. “It’s like, thank God that exists. This is what kids need. This is where they are. This is, frankly, what the medical community needs, because our community is already overwhelmed with mental health needs. I see it almost as a preventative effort to help people before things get really bad.”

At Manual, Roberts works with many students experiencing panic attacks. Ten years ago, if a student came to her office with difficulty breathing, she might have thought they had asthma. Now she asks them what’s going on in their lives because they’re likely in mental distress that’s creating physical symptoms.

“It can be anything that seems kind of minor, like a relationship problem in the school with a boyfriend or friend, or something with significant difficulties,” Roberts says, noting that students are often dealing with big problems like not knowing where their next meal will come from or rising levels of youth violence.

“We call them adverse life events,” Roberts says. “Have you moved within the last three years? That’s a stressful event. Has somebody in your family been affected by gun violence? That’s a life event.”

With Crisis Text Line, Roberts can give them a tool that doesn’t come with a wait time for an appointment with a therapist or psychologist — or the stigma that can accompany needing mental health support.

“There are students I work with to whom I say, ‘You could really benefit from meeting with a therapist to talk further about this. Would you be willing to do that?’ and they say, ‘I’m not going to sit in a room with somebody I don’t know,’” Roberts says. “But when I say to people. ‘What if you were to use this text line?’ They’re like, ‘This is pretty cool.’”

Caring for Denver is now working with Denver Public Schools to publicize Crisis Text Line; it has plans to use libraries, museums and rec centers across the city to help get the word out. If the one-year grant is successful, it will examine ways to fund the extra staffing in Denver permanently, Meinhold says.

Roberts predicts that the text line will be a huge success, especially after seeing how it’s worked for students like Abraham.

“For me to be able to give this out as a resource is a game changer,” Roberts says.

To use Crisis Text Line, text “DENVER” to 741741, or text 443-SUPPORT (442-AYUDAME for Spanish) on WhatsApp. There is also a web chat option.