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Breaking down the barriers for teens seeking help

December 5, 2012
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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Texting, for some, has become the new phone call.  For others, texting is what they grew up with.  Adolescents today oftentimes feel more comfortable talking through a text message or online chat, and professionals in the Joplin, Missouri area have recognized this not as a roadblock, but as an opportunity.

Ozark Center, the behavioral health division of Freeman Health System, has partnered with Joplin Schools to offer more than 5,000 students a service called SchoolMessenger Talk About It.  This product is a free, 24-hour communication service that allows students to confidentially reach out for help using their cell phone or computer.

Vice President of Clinical Services, Vicky Mieseler, says that the administrative staff began discussing this option within a week of the 2011 tornado that hit Joplin.  She recalls that they met with several federal officials from FEMA and health and senior services, and their challenge for Ozark was “for us to come up with a way to meet the needs of teens, tweens and adolescents where they feel most comfortable.”

“There’s a lot of barriers to seeking crisis counseling by that age group,” Mieseler explains.  “They oftentimes don’t feel comfortable making the phone call.”  Also, she says that the fact that they are still being parented also plays a factor in these situations. 

The process began by contacting two companies that had similar products.  Eventually, the group decided to go with Talk About It in part because it had experience in which Ozark saw value. 

“They had put together a very similar plan in Mississippi following the [Hurricane] Katrina disaster,” Mieseler explains. “We felt like it could really meet our needs.”  Also, in Talk About It’s proposal it mentioned ties with the schools, the department of mental health, and the mental health provider, and Ozark felt that the way the program was packaged met their needs.   

Funding for the program

After searching for funding for over a year to support the project, Joplin Tornado First Respond Fund stepped forward and provided funding for the first year.  “The Missouri Foundation for Mental Health did a grant application for us after that and agreed to pick up the remaining six years.  So that funding allows us to have a license to use this product for seven years,” says Mieseler.     

“There’s no real continuity to buying a bunch of cell phones to use for texting so the program takes the student’s text, converts it to an email, and sends it to our computers.  We respond back in an email format, the program converts it back into a text, and it goes to the child’s phone as a text.  It works well for business because there’s no way we could manage that many phones texting out,” she explains.

Besides this conversion process, Mieseler says the license also provides Ozark with “the fact that you have 24/7 assistance if there’s technical glitches.  Kids have access to people who can help them log in and other things like that.”

The other piece of this service is that the students can not only text crisis counselors at Ozark Center, but they can also text the principal at their school, the assistant principal, or their school counselors. 

She says that this helps them to address a multitude of issues, including bullying.  “It’s an anonymous text so it allows the kids to have the freedom to report things that they might not otherwise report, fearing retaliation,” she comments. 

Additionally, it allows students to text into their principal ideas for the next themed Friday, or to vote for Homecoming court.  The idea here is to use the service often so that the students are very comfortable with it if they should need it for something serious, explains Mieseler.    

Promoting the service to the students

Although any of the 7,500 child enrolled in Joplin Schools can access the texting product, Mieseler says they targeted fourth grade and up through their marketing plan.  To do this, they held assemblies in the middle schools and used some videos from Talk About It that students produced in various area across the country.  These short videos about bullying, “mean girls,” depression, stress, and family issues were used to demonstrate what the product was and why it was being implemented.  Additionally, there were posters placed throughout the buildings with tear-off sheets they could take with them and each student was given their own card that talks about how to use the system online, and as a text, and serves as a space where they can write their user id and password hint. 

For the high school students, they viewed a video that was streamed into their communication arts classes. After viewing, the teachers would have a conversation with the students about the product.  “We really want the school to own the product and share it with the students through them, so we didn’t really have any involvement in the marketing of the product,” Mieseler remarks.

The assembly in Joplin Schools was held on Nov. 16.  The week before that, Ozark was busy getting information out to the kids about this soon-to-be program.  Between the day of the assembly and Nov. 19, Mieseler says they received 200 text messages.  Only three were mental health related but the others were school issues.  She admits that some of them could’ve been the students just “testing the system” and “seeing if the principal would really respond.”  But in any case, she says “it’s great that they were using it.”

The text message format

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