Texting Through Crisis

Claire Reichle, Staff Reporter

On a typical night in Walla Walla, Whitman students are typing away on their laptops. Sophomore Omar Aldahleh isn’t writing a paper or updating his status – he is texting strangers in crisis.

Hailing from Redmond, Wash., Adahleh recently declared a major in psychology with an emphasis in neuroscience. Since October, he has been working with an organization called Crisis Text Line as a volunteer crisis counselor.

Crisis Text Line began in 2013 as a crisis hotline in which messagers text in about any number of issues and receive support from a trained crisis counselor. Since its inception, the organization has received over 62 million messages, according to the Crisis Text Line website.

“We focus on crises, not just suicide, so we really do see variety in issues from PTSD to abuse to self-harm,” Aldahleh said. “Still, suicide is the dominant issue.”

Afton Weaver

Aldahleh explained that the Crisis Text Line actually grew out of a customer service helpline that started receiving messages regarding suicide and other crises. The helpline responded to these messages by simply giving referrals to other suicide hotlines until they witnessed a text about a girl being raped by her father.

“The founder of the organization described that [as] being the text that changed everything and lit the flame for the rest of the organization,” Aldahleh said.

Aldahleh found that his involvement with the Crisis Text Line was just as much due to random chance as was the organization itself. Hoping to find some volunteer opportunity for his sophomore year in Walla Walla, Aldahleh started searching on VolunteerMatch, a website that helps people find places to volunteer, and the Crisis Text Line came up as one of the first listed.

“I was really intrigued, and I started reading about it and I was blown away,” Aldahleh said. “I thought, this opportunity is way too good to be true. I still think it is too good to be true after this long.”

After applying and being accepted to the organization over the summer, Aldahleh began an intensive online six-week training program that taught him everything from the fundamentals of the site to the how-tos of crisis conversations.

“The training threw me off in terms of difficulty level,” Aldahleh said. “I knew that I was going to learn about mental health and about issues revolving around it, but I really did not expect to walk away from it feeling like a completely different person in terms of my view of the world and my view of this topic.”

After completing the training, Aldahleh was ready to start engaging in conversations with texters in crisis on the Crisis Text Line website.

Aldahleh said his first conversation was particularly difficult due to his nerves and the intensity of the situation. However, his supervisor in the organization helped him stay calm and use the skills he had acquired in training to help the texter in crisis.

“[My supervisor] guided me through to help guide them through,” Aldahleh said.

Crisis Text Line promotes five steps of conversation for crisis counselors: building rapport with texters, exploring and performing a risk assessment, creating goals, discussing coping skills and finally ending the conversation.

Aldahleh said one of the most important aspects of the conversations is exploring, digging deeper. While the first problem addressed is often what led the texter to seek help, Aldahleh pointed out there is often a bigger issue at the heart of the matter.

“To give a fake example, someone might tell you they are short on money and their bills are late,” Aldahleh said. “But if you dig a little deeper, you would find that their spouse died two months ago and their spouse was the person who brought in the main income.”

Certainly Crisis Text Line has been an ongoing learning process for Aldahleh in which he has gained much insight. On a more tangible level, Aldahleh described his increased awareness of the prevalence of certain issues such as PTSD and homelessness. On a more abstract level, Aldahleh said his biggest takeaway is one of appreciation for the texters on the site.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is the notion that reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness ,but a sign of strength,” Aldahleh said. “That has definitely been changed in my mind.”

Aldahleh said that one of the most amazing parts of working as a crisis counselor is the feeling when he is able to genuinely help someone in crisis.

“When someone who’s suicidal and who really feels like they are going to end their life tells you that you’ve given them hope by the end of a conversation, that’s phenomenal,” Aldahleh said. “I’m always blown away by the emotions I have from that, where I’m the one crying at the end of a conversation.”

Aldahleh shared that some of his most rewarding conversations are with those engaging in self-harm. Before working with the Crisis Text Line, Aldahleh said that self-harm was just a far-off notion, but his work as a crisis counselor has opened up his eyes to the mindset.

“It’s always humbling when I’m sitting in my room with a pack of chips next to me, and I’m texting this person who is sharing all this with me,” Aldahleh said. “I don’t get to know this person other than the words that are on their screen, but sometimes they share things with us they’ve never told anyone else in their lives, whether it’s coming out or sharing that they’re depressed.”

Aldahleh said that in his conversations, he tries to emphasize that he is in service for the texter in whatever they need.

“I want them to realize they are the ones driving the conversation themselves, and I am like a parent on the sidelines watching them help themselves,” Aldahleh said.

Aldahleh shared a breakthrough moment he experienced over spring break during a trip to the Bay Area.

“I was at the Golden Gate Bridge and there was this sign that I saw that’s actually the number for the Crisis Text Line number,” Aldahleh said. “It was surreal when I was there, thinking people have texted from this site, from this spot. I realized what I’m doing on this site is so much bigger than myself.”

Aldahleh said that Crisis Text Line utilizes data analysis, which marks language that is most effective to people in crisis in addition to global events that may cause a spike in calls for help, helping counselors like Aldahleh best serve their texters.

Along with the support of his supervisors, Aldahleh points to the supportiveness of his fellow crisis counselors as crucial to his role in the organization. One of his favorite aspects of the job is the group chat feature that allows counselors to debrief with each other.

“There’s just this spill of love from supervisors and other counselors in the group chat,” Aldahleh said. “It’s a really cool community to be a part of.”

From Crisis Text Line, Aldahleh hopes to share a message of self-care to others around him.

“I’ve always questioned what practicing self-care really means,” Aldahleh said. “I’m realizing it’s an active thing you have to be engaging with in every moment of your life, something that should be ingrained in your thought process.”

In the future, Aldahleh hopes to attend a national convention that Crisis Text Line holds annually. These conventions bring together crisis counselors, supervisors, professionals and professors from across the country to speak on mental health issues and better the resources of Crisis Text Line.

Aldahleh’s experience with Crisis Text Line has influenced the way he engages with the Whitman community. On campus, Aldahleh was recently elected as ASWC’s Vice President of Legislative Affairs for the 2018-19 school year and hopes to create more legislation regarding mental health. Aldahleh has had two years of experience as a senator on the legislative affairs committee, creating resolutions and communicates with the administration.

One of Aldahleh’s biggest goals as VP of Legislative Affairs is to increase awareness of mental health on campus. Aldahleh said he hopes to create a day similar to Power and Privilege when students, faculty and professionals come together to discuss mental health.

“There are so many people who are passionate about mental health on this campus and if we connected everyone together, we could really make change on our campus and have students leaving as better people with better practices for life,” Aldahleh said.