A couple of years ago, Karen Levy was on the lookout for a volunteering opportunity.
A longtime public health consultant, Levy has helped lead the Linn-Benton Health Equity Alliance. She also served on committees that worked on the collaboration between the city of Corvallis and Oregon State University and the lengthy effort to craft a property maintenance code for city rental housing.
She has found her calling with the Crisis Text Line, which connects individuals seeking assistance with crisis counselors. The work is anonymous and conducted totally via text. Levy tries to carve out four hours per week of time, which she usually spends on a laptop in the breakfast nook in her northwest Corvallis home.
“It’s a free, easily accessible resource available to anyone,” Levy said. “I want people to know that it exists and that they are not alone. We are talking about serious stuff, and I have the opportunity to bring that chill vibe to it. I can meet them where they are and try to direct things to a more constructive space.”
Levy underwent training for the program and then went live in October 2017. She has participated in more than 500 text conversations since she joined the group.
Levy said that the problems that texters bring up include anxiety, depression, online bullying and family issues such as divorce. Thoughts of suicide also come up, although Levy notes that nationally suicide is not in the top three of issues Crisis Text Line clients bring up. It is, however, No. 2 in Oregon.
“Sometimes we think of services like this as only for suicide,” Levy said. “It’s not just suicide. If it’s a crisis to you, it’s a crisis to us. If you are stressed, we are here.”
Levy said she usually spends 30 to 45 minutes with a texter. All conversations are monitored by paid supervisors who are authorized to intervene if the situation warrants it.
Levy said the texting piece of the program is a critical component.
“Texting is not a lesser form of counseling,” she said. “It’s very effective. It’s the confidentiality. When they are texting, people are more able to open up. They share things more because of the anonymity. And they often don’t want to talk to their parents about it. I get it. It’s a very hard conversation to start.”
Texters, most of whom find out about the service from social media, have proven to be an interesting demographic mix, Levy said, citing Crisis Text Line survey data.
“For 40 percent of texters this is their first access to a mental health service,” Levy said, adding that many are low-income, do not identify as heterosexual and that people of color are over-represented.
“Sometimes texters come in really anxious and really upset,” she said, “and you want to move them from a hot moment to a cool calm.”
Text traffic ebbs and flows, Levy said, with spikes coming around the suicide deaths of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain as well as the 2016 presidential election.
Sometimes simple suggestions can help move callers to that calmer place: snuggling with a stuffed animal or a pet, meditation, yoga or painting, or perhaps reaching out to a friend.
“I’m humbled and moved at the work that people put in to make things better,” Levy said. “I often tell texters how brave they are for texting in.”
Levy said she only has been involved in two “active rescues,” cases in which it is determined that someone might be at a risk of taking their life. Such cases represent less than 2 percent of the organization’s load.
“There is a ladder of risk assessment and counselors work their way through a series of questions,” Levy said. “Have they thought about it, do they have a plan and the means? The last question is, have they set a timeline? And if it’s within 24 hours we consider that person to be at imminent risk.”
Levy has moved from being just a crisis counselor to being a strong booster of the program.
“I volunteered for more than a year before I started to spread the word,” she said. “I wanted to be familiar with the organization first. Now, I want people to know about it.”
Levy has organized informational meetings and partnered with the Benton County Health Department. She has talked to Rotary clubs. Discussions also have been held with school districts, with a major success stemming from her outreach to Corvallis High School, where Principal Matt Boring approved putting Crisis Text Line information on the back of student ID cards.
“I like it when I can do more,” she said of the outreach effort. “I feel like I’m helping people and can give something back.”
Corvallis geography helps with her ability to contribute as well.
“Most of the traffic is late at night,” she said, “and we need West Coast volunteers. When it’s 1 a.m. in New York it’s only 10 p.m. here."
Levy was asked how working with Crisis Text Line clients has affected her relationship with her two daughters.
“It has helped me to be a bit more of an active listener,” she said. “I try to pause and reflect and have more of a give-and-take in the conversation.”
Levy recalled a conversation with one of her daughters about her possible choice of colleges.
“She kept asking questions, and I tried not to impose any assumptions. I didn’t want to impose the me. I just try to show up and be much more able to listen.”
Listening. The word came up repeatedly in our conversation with Levy.
“I tell people I’m here to listen without judgment,” Levy said of her work with texters. “They are looking for a new approach and someone to listen. It takes a lot of courage to call in. I try to make sure that I recognize that.
“ ‘YOU did that,’ ” I tell them. And the response is often ‘I feel so much better because you listened to me.’ ”