April 7 is World Health Day. This year, the focus is on depression. And as Stanford’s Raw Data podcast explains, technology is playing a new and exciting role in helping people in crisis.
According to the World Health Organization, depression afflicts more than 300 million people worldwide and is now the leading cause of poor health and disability. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control report that that 7.6 percent of Americans over the age of 12 suffer from depression. At least half of those afflicted aren’t getting treatment; at its worst, depression can lead to suicide. In fact, among teenagers and young adults, suicide is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. and globally.
The causes are complex. But many researchers and mental health professionals are concerned that excessive use of digital technologies is contributing to the problem. Young people are spending more and more time texting and chatting on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Numerous studies document relationships between technology use and isolation, anxiety, depression, and Internet addiction.
Yet technology is also providing new ways to address and prevent youth depression and suicide. Crisis Text Line—a free, anonymous, 24/7 resource for people in distress—is an inspiring example.
Discover how Crisis Text Line works in this episode of Raw Data, a Stanford University podcast about how digital technologies are transforming our lives.
Crisis Text Line was founded in 2013, and initially served New York and Chicago. Since then, the organization’s 3,000 trained volunteer counselors have fielded more than 33 million requests for help from all over the U.S. In addition, Crisis Text Line’s dataset of text conversations, which is available to academic researchers, is a new and invaluable tool for studying mental health trends across the U.S.
Raw Data hosts Mike Osborne and Leslie Chang spoke with Bob Filbin, Crisis Text Line’s chief data scientist. Filbin explained that data is central to the counselors’ ability to address real-time crises and to improving the quality of Crisis Text Line’s services overall. From the first text received, all the way through to the end of the conversation, algorithms enable a counselor to triage, tailor responses, and even dispatch emergency professionals to a texter’s location if they seem to be in imminent danger.
Experiencing the process first hand is intense. Mike and Leslie shadowed Ellen Kaster, a volunteer counselor, for several hours at her home in San Francisco. Ellen was one of 56 counselors on duty that evening. In between conversations, Ellen also shared a bit of her personal story and why she volunteers her time every week to counsel others.
The mounting prevalence and costs of depression are unsettling, but help can be just a text away. Crisis Text Line is a shining example of how technology, big data, and the human touch can transform—and even save—lives.