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Text-friendly mental health helpline 1737 is responding to a growing need

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One year on, providers of text-based support service 1737 are looking at ways to connect via Facebook, Instagram and WeChat.

When did you last get a call on your phone? These days most of us use our mobile devices to text, message and communicate via social media, and that is changing many things, including the way mental-health and counselling services are being delivered.

A year ago, text-friendly helpline 1737 was introduced by the National Telehealth Service.

“The aim was to put into the pockets of every New Zealander access to 24-hour, seven-day professional counselling in a way that would resonate with them,” says chief executive Andrew Slater.

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Although you can call the number to chat, more than half the contacts in the first 12 months have been via text and, not surprisingly, those aged between 13 and 24 have been especially keen on that way of reaching out.

The service has been deliberately not branded to any specific issue, so it can be whatever people need it to be, says Slater. “We’re hearing about anxiety, depression and addiction, but also relationship matters, peer and social-media pressure, bullying or young people looking for strategies to cope with school exams.”

Delivering help via text has taken some learning. Tone and emotion can be difficult to convey and early on, the system had to be upgraded to accommodate emojis. These are now updated regularly as new images are rolled out – 2018 additions will probably include superheroes, supervillains and redheads. “The emoji race is on,” says Slater.

The online urban dictionary also gets a workout as counsellors stay up with teen slang and textspeak. The team includes people from different age groups, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. And the organisation, which also runs services such as Healthline and Quitline, has been careful not to make the same mistake as some companies that located their call centres overseas and alienated customers. It has bases in the four main centres and staff who work from home in rural areas.

“One of the challenges of delivering health services via technology is that we don’t want to become disconnected from our communities,” says Slater.

National Telehealth Service chief executive Andrew Slater.

Strong local connections meant the 1737 service was able to respond to a youth-suicide crisis in the Coromandel and reach those most vulnerable. Slater says it’s been heartening to see how local communities have embraced the service – from school prefects wearing 1737 badges and a South Auckland school that created a rap to a Waikato cafe that produced 1737 baking – helping spread the word, despite less than $20,000 being spent on marketing.

When someone texts 1737 for help, the aim is to get back to them within 20 seconds, although if demand is high, it can take longer. About 12 to 20 texts are exchanged per interaction, but there have been cases in which text-message counselling has continued for seven or eight hours.

“It can take that long to build a rapport, find out what’s happening and get them assistance from the right services and agencies,” says Slater. “In complex cases, we try to build enough of a rapport to get people on the phone.”

The service has engaged with people who previously were struggling alone. “It’s what we were hoping would happen. About 70% of people contacting us have never been in touch with a mental-health professional before. Some may just need coping strategies, others to be referred for further support.”

He has come across instances of people using the 1737 service as a family, with teens suffering from anxiety making a conference call with their parents from home. Others feel safer with texts because of the anonymity it offers.

“It makes it easier to take that first step, not just because of the anonymity but also the fact that we’re talking in a language and space people are communicating in.”

Slater is aware this will continue to evolve, and quickly. The organisation is looking at ways to connect via Facebook and Instagram and is exploring other services such as WeChat, which is popular among Asian communities. “We want to make sure we’re promoting the service in places where New Zealanders are,” he says.

The most powerful message Slater has learnt in the year since 1737 was launched is just how much it is needed.

“There are so many new things in society – peer pressures, social media, ways of communication – and massive levels of stress that our young people are living with every day.”

This is an updated version of an article first published in the July 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.