‘The language of teenagers’: New grant brings Crisis Text Line to Denver and its schools

Hands with red-painted fingernails hold a cell phone.
A new grant is promoting the Crisis Text Line in Denver. Teens — or anyone needing help — can text "Denver" to 741741 to be connected to a volunteer crisis counselor. (Maskot / Getty Images)

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In the midst of what experts say is a youth mental health emergency, Denver has a new response: a text line that lets teenagers seek help in a way that’s comfortable for them.

Teens — or anyone who’s struggling with stress, depression, anxiety, loneliness, or other issues — can text “Denver” to 741741 and be connected within a few minutes to a trained volunteer counselor through the national Crisis Text Line. The service works much like a traditional crisis hotline but with texting, in both English and Spanish, instead of talking.

“This is the language of teenagers,” said Lucy Roberts, a school nurse at Denver’s Manual High School. “This is meeting them exactly where they need to be.”

As a school nurse, Roberts is trained in skills like how to give medication and manage asthma. But more and more, she said the questions she gets are related to mental – not physical – health.

The other day, she was doing a round of routine vision screenings. In the past, Roberts said students would ask her if she thought they might need glasses or how to get contact lenses.

This year, she said, “there were multiple kids who said to me, ‘What do you know about anxiety, and how do I know if I have it?’ And we weren’t talking about that at all.”

The Crisis Text Line is an international organization founded in 2013. But Roberts said she didn’t know about it until recently, when the Caring for Denver Foundation, which is funded by voter-approved tax dollars, awarded the text line a $326,000 grant to promote its 24/7 services through social media posts and outreach in Denver Public Schools.

Spurred in part by the pandemic, DPS and other Colorado school districts have boosted the number of mental health services available to students, including through the state’s “I Matter” program that offers students six free telehealth or in-person counseling sessions.

But although 300-student Manual High has two outside therapists who see students in addition to the psychologist, social worker, and counselor on staff, the therapists’ schedules are completely booked, Roberts said.

Being able to refer students to the Crisis Text Line is a much-needed alternative that Roberts said is quicker, more convenient, and often more comfortable for teens than meeting a therapist face-to-face.

“Otherwise, I give a student and their family the name of a person who’s got a waiting list who says they can take them in six months,” Roberts said. With the Crisis Text Line, “within two minutes, a student is going to get a response. That’s incredible.”

The Crisis Text Line is one of many youth-focused initiatives funded by the Caring for Denver Foundation. Another is a recently announced $1.7 million investment in five additional therapists that will be stationed inside DPS middle and high schools.

Two of the five therapists will specialize in substance abuse and the other three will provide on-demand therapy when students are in crisis so they don’t have to wait for an appointment.

“We want to make sure there are as many pathways for young people to get the help they need in ways that work for them,” said Executive Director Lorez Meinhold.

Melanie Asmar is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Colorado. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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