In addition to appealing to a younger demographic, online hotlines also enable conversations that can’t be overheard, which is critical when immediate safety is at risk. Brian Pinero is the Chief Programs Officer at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which launched an online chat service called The Hotline in 2013. The Hotline now sees 1,000 to 1,500 chats a month, half of which come from mobile devices. Pinero said the ability to communicate silently is key, since visitors often cannot discuss sexual coercion and assault on the phone when their husband or kids are in the house, or in public.
“It is hard to have a discussion about how your husband makes you have sex in ways you don’t want to,” he said. “On chat, people reveal way more than they do on the phone, and that is a huge opportunity for us to start exploring topics surrounding assault and coercion without making the visitor feel completely vulnerable.”
Conversely, the greater anonymity of the chat system makes it more difficult to gather information that can help provide the best support. Volunteers have far fewer contextual clues about the visitor’s gender, age, or current state of mind, and you cannot make assumptions. With so little personal and contextual information, saying the “right” thing or recommending relevant resources can be a challenge. You have to focus completely on and respond to what the visitor has felt comfortable sharing.
“Our entire approach was phone-based and we had to change our advocacy style, because in chats you don’t have the ability to hear environmental things,” Pinero said. “On the phone, I can hear if children are crying. With chats, you need to follow up, clarify you understand what is going on, and check in. You can't hear the inflection in someone’s voice that this is a difficult moment. Conveying empathy is much more difficult.”
Chat-based conversations require more time to build trust and rapport. While it might seem that online chats would be more “scalable” than phone hotlines, this is not the case, at least not yet. Longer sessions demand more volunteers, and volunteers take a long time to find and train. A shortage of volunteers means longer wait times. On RAINN, peak wait times can be up to an hour, and I’ve had sessions where 10 people are in the waiting room at a time. It’s sad, but demand significantly outstrips supply.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline just made its chat service available 24/7 in January across a network of 28 (out of 165) centers, but the wait times are still significantly longer than on the phone. As a result of limited capacity, John Draper, the project director, said that the chat remains a secondary service. However, he hopes to continue expanding it into a robust and fully-integrated option.
“You can’t schedule a crisis, and our goal is to open as many doors and windows as possible to get people help in the moment when they are in crisis,” he said. “97 percent of calls to the phone hotline are answered within 90 seconds, while only about half of chats can be responded to at all. But we do know from early data that an overwhelming majority of people who access the service feel better after the chat. Typically, they are feeling less sad and more hopeful.”