Crisis Center adds online chat to reach youth


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Ready to take calls ranging from how to bake a turkey to suicide prevention, University of Iowa alum John Shean, 27, typically starts his shift at the Crisis Center of Johnson County with a simple phone greeting: “Crisis Center; this is John. How can I help you?”

But now, Shean and other volunteers might have to start their shifts by logging into a chat session.

The center recently launched a new Crisis Chat feature, in addition to the 24-Hour Crisis Line, in an effort to reach out to younger populations.

“The population we are not hitting right now are teenagers to college-age,” said Brooke Anstoetter, the center’s communication and development coordinator. “It is the first-ever chat service in Iowa on which people have an emotional outlet over the Internet.”

The Crisis Center began when a group of University of Iowa social work students came together to help their community by listening to individual problems by phone.

Crisis Chat is an online chat service that, similar to the 24-Hour Crisis Line, offers help and gives emotional support to people dealing with crisis.

Volunteers also provide referrals and additional resources to help callers.

Shean said the hope is to appeal to teenagers and college students in a format that is more familiar to them.

“The younger generations are turning more to online-only communication,” Shean said. “Our goal is to venture out and meet them where they are most comfortable.”

Heather Todd, 31, worked for a crisis center in North Carolina for five years before joining the Iowa City center in October.

“I think [the Crisis Chat] will be pretty useful,” she said. “A lot of people will be more comfortable with revealing information or telling the whole story.”

Online chat services in crisis intervention are growing in popularity, according to Contact USA, the national organization for crisis chat. In Johnson County, Shean said, the center takes 20 to 35 calls a day.

The center’s policy is to allow callers to discuss any topic, he said, though it specializes in suicide prevention.

So far, the center has only received one chat, Shean said, from someone outside the country.

“I’m hoping for about a chat a day,” he said, noting that that would be the norm for other organizations using the feature.

“We definitely hope to increase hours offered by the end of summer,” he said.

Twenty volunteers, including Todd, completed an additional four hours of training in order to operate the Crisis Chat service. All volunteers complete 50 hours of call training.

The volunteers are trained partly on how to respond to the younger generation. But Todd said the key to success is being comfortable in the new setting.

“I’m pretty keyed into the web,” she said. “I used to play online games. I’m used to the chat lingo and mannerisms.”

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