When a cluster of teen suicides in 2012 shocked residents of Lake Forest, an affluent suburb of Chicago, neighbors came together to determine what they were missing and how they could help. Among those was Andy Duran, executive director of LEAD, a local non-profit drug prevention organization.
In 2014, as a result of this meeting, Duran developed and launched “Text 4 Help,” an anonymous crisis text line that allows teens facing stress or crisis to reach a licensed clinician who will respond to them within three minutes 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Fast forward six years. With the program now assisting more than 10 million people, Duran approached the Diocese of Orlando Office of Catholic Schools with the idea of piloting the program for middle and high school students, as well as all faculty members, in the diocese’s 41 Catholic schools. Working in partnership with the Florida Department of Education, the diocese is the only Catholic school system in Florida using the program.
“Text 4 Help is part of our overall school security strategy. Keeping our students safe is not just about locking the front doors and securing the perimeter; it’s also about the mental well-being of those inside the schools,” Henry Fortier, superintendent of Catholic schools, said. “This program allows students and teachers to communicate for free with licensed mental health professionals anonymously and receive the help they need before issues rise to a level where they may be destructive to themselves or others. It provides another level of support to our communities of faith as we seek ways to heal the brokenness some of our school families struggle with daily.”
Safety is a top concern for the diocesan school administrators. After the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018 took the lives of 17 students, faculty and staff in Parkland, the Florida Department of Education Office of Safe Schools implemented a program called FortifyFL. FortifyFL allows users to instantly relay suspicious activity to appropriate law enforcement agencies and school officials.
Patricia Dailey, associate superintendent, said that while the FortifyFL anonymous tip line provides a way to report physical threats made against a school, it does little to support the social and emotional needs of students.
“Every day our students are faced with social pressures, stress, difficult situations, or just need someone to talk to when feeling down. Text 4 Help is changing the way students reach out for support, providing help literally at their fingertips,” Dailey said.
Megan Meneough is a licensed mental health counselor at Father Lopez Catholic High School in Daytona Beach. As a graduate of Father Lopez, she is excited about the program.
“Working in a high school, the kids are up during hours I can’t provide services. I think it’s great they have an option for midnight or 2 a.m. or Saturdays and Sundays when they are really stressed or going through something,” Meneough said. “Sometimes it’s a lot easier to say something in a text than it is to say it in person. The benefit of that is huge.”
Schools are promoting use of Text 4 Help by placing posters in classrooms, social media, newsletters and email blasts. Each school is assigned a unique code word the student uses to initiate a text session and be connected with a licensed mental health counselor. The fact the service is free is an added bonus.
The Text 4 Help counselor works closely with schools and other community agencies to ensure the safest outcome for users. In the case of a life-threatening condition, emergency responders are notified and given as much available information as possible to help the person in need.
“We’ve had situations already where we’ve had students in real crisis, and because of Text 4 Help, we were able to get students the help they needed,” Dailey said.
Not only does the Text 4 Help program provide a valuable tool for the students, it also provides support programs and teacher professional development. A unique aspect to the program in the Diocese of Orlando is the addition of a code word just for faculty – something never done before.
“Our teachers are struggling too,” said Dailey, noting that staff has already utilized the service.
“There are normal stresses in high school, but with everything going on in society, it is more so,” Meneough, who has been at Father Lopez for three years, said. This year she is seeing an estimated 50% more students than in past years.
“Being home so long has had an impact on them,” Meneough said. Going from online learning in your pajamas to a full day of in-person classes is “a huge change in their routine.”
Another factor is that counselor appointments are harder to come by since COVID has overwhelmed their caseload. Although Telehealth is an option, it lacks the privacy Text 4 Help provides.
“This is a good resource because nobody hears what you’re texting,” Meneough said.