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New York City gives teens with mental health issues free counseling via text

Smartphones give teens instant access to photos, videos, tweets and so much more. Now students at 10 New York City public high schools can pick up their phones to get immediate access to free and confidential mental health counseling, thanks to a new pilot program called NYC Teen Text.

The 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 27 percent of New York City public high school students said they felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks. However, only 18 percent of these students sought the help of a counselor. NYC Teen Text aims to close this gap by making it easy for teens struggling with emotional issues to get help from trained counselors in their moments of need.

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“Our goal is to meet teens where they are – and where they are is on their phones,” said Chirlane McCray, wife of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“Many New York teenagers aren’t yet ready to speak their pain aloud, but they might be ready to text someone who is able to help them,” said Chiara de Blasio, daughter of Mayor de Blasio and the face of the NYC Teen Text program. “I know from personal experience that reaching out when you’re in pain can be the turning point – the first step on the road to recovery. With the launch of NYC Teen Text, the only thing separating 18,000 high school students from the help they need is the ‘Send’ button.”

A local program like NYC Teen Text has a number of advantages. For instance, more than 2,000 local providers of counseling services are in the program’s database, which is a valuable pool for making recommendations to teen in need of further help, according to John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which helped build NYC Teen Text. If a teen appears in danger of harming themselves or others, counselors can work with the local police department to check in on the teen.

But there are also drawbacks to this convenient form of instant communication. As with everyday text message-based conversations, the absence of certain verbal and nonverbal cues found in face-to-face interactions can make it difficult to sufficiently convey empathy, Draper told NPR. “You can’t hear someone say ‘Mhm, mhm’ over text.”

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He said counselors who are part of NYC Teen Text get extra training. “Over text, counselors go out of their way to make it clear that they’re actively listening.”

To ensure these interactions are confidential, the program uses encrypted messages and stores all information in secure databases, according to Draper. “Still, on their end, we have no control over what they do with their information. The advantage of keeping the texts on their phone is that they can read and reread these messages that were useful or important to them. But we do warn them — if they’re concerned about someone seeing, they should forward their texts to a more secure setting.”

The pilot program will be available Monday through Friday from 2:30-9 p.m., and on weekends from 1-9 p.m.

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NYC Teen Text Kits will be distributed at the 10 pilot high schools, and program materials will be displayed in high-traffic areas, such as water fountains, bathrooms and bulletin boards.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will track how many students use the program and will gather feedback from students in the pilot schools. If NYC Teen Text is deemed a success, the department may expand it to high schools across the city.