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Crisis Chat: Online Emotional Support from Multiple Crisis Centers Nationwide

A network of US crisis centers is building a nationwide online emotional support service, using iCarol to deliver the tools needed for success. Whether you’re a standalone center, or hoping to build a network to provide live chat, learn from Crisis Chat’s popular initiative described below.

Crisis Chat is a nation-wide (USA) initiative to provide online emotional support via electronic channels like instant messaging, also known as “live chat”. It is a growing network of crisis centers across America who are collaborating to train their volunteers and make them available for one-on-one chat sessions that provide:

a place to talk about problems and stress that may be difficult to talk about anywhere else… to find non-judgmental support and help through a difficult time….to find information on mental health problems and services….a confidential, secure, and anonymous way of reaching out for help when you don’t know where else to turn.

The initiative is led by CONTACT USA (www.contact-usa.org), who is providing strategic direction, formal standards, and accreditation services in the realm of online emotional support, for current members and those agencies wishing to join.

The need: Providing emotional support via non-phone channels

The leaders of Crisis Chat knew that providing online emotional support – anytime – would be a critical component of their success. Their in-depth research showed the importance of electronic channels to major portions of the population, like those under the age of 30. Increasingly these people do not reach for the telephone to seek help. Instead they turn to the tools they use elsewhere in their daily life: websites, live chat and text messaging.

When communicating with peers at other crisis centers across the country, it was clear that many center directors felt equally passionate about serving people online, yet didn’t know where to begin, or had only modest success with their own local effort. Key questions faced each center, such as:
  • How do you properly recruit and train people to provide online support?
  • Are there any national standards or accreditation, similar to what is available for phone-based servcies?
  • How do you generate public awareness of the service so that they’ll use it?
  • What technology platform should be used to deliver service?
  • How do we make the case to potential funders in a way that shows the need and gets the project funded?
  • What are the legal concerns?

The opportunity: 24/7/365 available volunteers from many centers nationwide in one system

That’s why they decided to come together and form Crisis Chat. With a soft launch in the fall of 2010, today there are five independent crisis centers providing live chat for up to 10 hours per day, through their unified portal at CrisisChat.org. Many other centers are in the process of recruiting, training and preparing to join the network too, in an effort to increase the capacity of volunteers available to serve, and reach their goal of 24/7 availability. CONTACT USA also continues to forge partnerships with other National organizations, such as National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Inspire USA Foundation, and others to ensure a quality service to any person who in need of help.

The technology need: A system to manage the multi-center collaboration, with the same kind of vital tools like those available to volunteers for phone-based service.

One particular question kept Crisis Chat from even a pilot project, let alone a formal launch: Where in the world will we find a technology platform that will meet all the unique needs of the collaborative? Sure, there are dozens of generic “live chat” services available at low cost. But which one could possibly meet the demanding needs of online emotional support, like:
  • Completely secure, from the visitor’s computer, to the servers, to the volunteer’s computer, and everything in between
  • Shift management, so that centers could easily indicate when their volunteers would be available, and even let them sign up for those shifts in advance
  • Making referrals from their meticulously built and maintained resource databases used in their phone services
  • Geographic restrictions, so that they prevent people outside their service area from gaining access – especially important while they are still in the “building” stage
  • Integration with call data, so that many centers could use the same system and tools as they use for logging phone calls
  • Getting help from a supervisor, even when that supervisor might be hundreds of miles away, and be a different person from shift to shift
  • Enforcing standards, so that service delivery would be consistent no matter which volunteer or crisis center was serving a particular client on any given day
  • Network-wide reporting, so they could see trends in their chats, tune their operations, and substantiate to current and potential funders their impact

The solution: iCarol Messaging

The Crisis Chat leadership turned to iCarol to meet all of the needs above, as well as additional great features making it the ideal tool for them. Through iCarol Messaging, visitors are able to see when the next available chat session starts, register online and be assigned to the next available volunteer, no matter where in the network they might be.

Behind the scenes, iCarol delivers the Crisis Chat network an orchestrated the shift calendar, consistent data collection on the visitors’ issues and demographics, great tools for managing and conducting the chat sessions, and the potential for shared referral databases and aggregate statistics.

Jill O, Crisis Chat Coordinator from the board of CONTACT USA, and the director of a participating center in Albany, New York, affirms:

“CONTACT USA’s Crisis Chat service is thrilled that iCarol has developed a service on its current system called iCarol Messaging.  With so many other new considerations and questions involved in the transition from a call-based center to a center taking both calls and chat, it is a relief that the technology transition is taken care of by iCarol Messaging.”


Columbia, Maryland, USA
"You and your support staff are more like partners on the journey to help our clients than someone we do business with." -Brian Y, Director

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