City raises community awareness of Crisis Text Line partnership

City of Tacoma recently erected this sign on the 34th Street Bridge with the aim to promote its text-based crisis intervention service to residents. Approximately 30-40 more signs will be placed in the city over the course of 2018. Photo by Andrew Fickes

“There is hope,” a sign emphatically states, located on the light post on the 34th Street Bridge in East Tacoma.

This sign, and a second identical sign on the opposite side of the bridge, were recently placed by the City of Tacoma to spread word about its partnership with Crisis Text Line, a national not-for-profit offering free 24/7 crisis intervention via SMS text message.

The signs on the 34th Street bridge invite those in crisis to text HEAL to 741741. Individuals in crisis are guaranteed to receive a text response from a live counselor within five minutes. Counselors are trained to deescalate an individual in crisis from a hot moment down to a cool calm by paying close attention to key words in the text.

“They will stay with that person for as long as it takes,” said Vicky McLaurin, program manager for the City of Tacoma’s Neighborhood and Community Services Department. “When there are key words that are identified as triggers, live counselors will contact local authorities in order to send a first responder to the person in need.”

McLaurin said Crisis Text Line does not charge the city for the service, nor does the City charge residents. The only fees an individual may incur are mobile phone usage rates imposed by their cellular carrier.

When the City of Tacoma launched the service in May (mental health awareness month) of last year, it became the first city in Washington to enter into a partnership with Crisis Text Line and the first city to use a specific word: HEAL.

“The intent was for us to increase our ability to serve our residents (with mental health challenges) and to provide additional services that they may not have,” McLaurin said.

The City collects one-tenth of 1 percent of local sales tax to support mental health and substance abuse disorder services to residents. McLaurin said the City is utilizing the funding exclusively for advertising the program. Over the next year, the City plans to use the money set aside to erect 30-40 signs throughout the city that promote and advertise the program.

“To put up signs at minimal cost and within a quick amount of time is an excellent example of collaboration among city departments,” McLaurin said. “This is a collaboration between Public Works and Community and Neighborhood Services. This is something that is ongoing. The community won’t see signs overnight, but over time.”

Starting this May, marking the one-year anniversary of the program, the Washington State Healthcare Authority and City of Seattle is expected to launch a sister program. City of Seattle and WSHA plan to collaborate with the City of Tacoma by using the same text word: HEAL.

“Once 200 people have used the service with the word HEAL we will have access to the data and we will be able to make funding decisions,” McLaurin said. “We will be able to identify the zip codes of areas that may need additional funding and use the data to identify the type of crisis individuals may be experiencing, which will help us to identify funding when applying for grants.”

Since May 2017 the text line has helped 99 residents of Tacoma and has helped identify three residents who required the help of a first responder.

“As we continue with the process, we will get more marketing out, and we’re confident we will get to that 200,” McLaurin said. “We’re looking forward to offering our residents an avenue of communication when they don’t feel they can talk to anyone.”

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