What's the solution to a kid in crisis? Sometimes, the answer is another kid.
Portland based YouthLine now offers an open ear and a roadmap to resources for some 15,000 youth a year — with calls, texts and instant messages pouring in every day from across the United States, and around the globe.
"These mental health needs don't discriminate," said Phoenix, a senior at Beaverton High School, pointing to the peaks and valleys of wealth in American society. "It's the same need."
Phoenix and about 100 other young people staff the call center, which is part of the larger service in Southwest Portland. The program, founded in 2013 with just nine student volunteers, is designed for anyone experiencing mental or emotional turmoil between the ages of 13 and 18.
In reality, children as young as 8 call in after finding the center's number online. Some need help revealing a bad grade to a parent; others are consumed with thoughts of self-harm. Students respond to the calls and written messages one after another in three-hour shifts from 4 to 10 p.m.
"I don't have a magic wand that can make it all go away," explained a senior at a Portland high school named Katie. "But I can sit here and listen."
Because the students aren't licensed counselors, they're trained not to provide direct advice or therapy. But they can guide callers to local resources, using a relatable voice that's often more credible than any adult or authority figure.
Lines for Life CEO Dwight Holton says the peer-to-peer service couldn't exist in its current form without a $200,000 grant from Multnomah County that also funds a veterans hotline. The organization recently expanded to Central Oregon, and now has five students and counselors working out of the Oregon State University campus in Bend.
"If we can help kids build these help-seeking skills early on in life," Holton said, "then we won't hear from them again later with a more desperate crisis."
Lines for Life works with roughly 200 adult volunteers and 45 employees, who triage more than 25,000 calls a year from adult Oregonians seeking refuge from suicidal ideation or substance abuse, as well as providing help to military members and veterans. It's a vital link in the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline launched in 2004.
A growing number of local leaders, however, are calling for the creation of a new three-digit number for people needing expedited aid during a mental health crisis. In a Dec. 17 to the Federal Communications Commission, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, suggested that 6-1-1 might be the key code.
"Even a few minutes can make a huge difference in somebody's life," Wyden noted during a visit with Lines for Life on Friday, Feb. 15.
The senator sat down with 10 Lines for Life student volunteers, who shared their own stories of the ostracizing effects of social media and the need for more mental health education in schools.
Wyden said recent surveys show that half of LGBTQ students have considered suicide at some point, while an estimated 40,000 Americans die at their own hands every year.
Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, a working E.R. doctor, says the demand for services is only growing. During her last shift, her colleagues treated suicidal thoughts in a 15-year-old girl, a 12-year-old boy and helped an 8-year-old experiencing uncontrollable bouts of aggression.
"The stresses and pressures that youth are under are just orders of magnitude stronger than when I was a kid," she said. "This is a crisis."
Need to talk?
Students are available to help their peers from 4 to 10 p.m. daily, and adults are available at other times.
Text: Teen2teen to 839863
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is staffed 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.