When Dan Strauss' 17-year-old son Alex sought help in the hours before he took his life, he didn't try to talk to someone or call a suicide hotline. He reached out in the way he always communicated: via text, to his therapist in the middle of the night.
"After it was too late, the counselor said she got a text from him," Strauss said. "Students are reaching out by texting. That's how they communicate. Why don't we just recognize this?"
A growing number of suicide prevention groups around the country, including one in San Francisco, are starting to catch on.
Last month, San Francisco Suicide Prevention began a pilot text-based suicide intervention program with one San Francisco high school and plans to expand it to other schools in the city early next year.
The program, called MyLife, gives students a text number they can use to connect with a trained crisis counselor. Similar to telephone hotlines, the counselor can provide emotional support and alert emergency services if necessary. The program is funded by California's Proposition 63, also known as the Mental Health Services Act.
"Our intention is to provide more avenues for kids to reach out and contact us," said Michelle Thomas, director of outreach and education for San Francisco Suicide Prevention. Thomas, who spoke about the program before a California Senate mental health committee hearing in San Francisco, declined to identify the school or publicize the text number because the project is still in its early stages.
"Eventually this (texting program) would be for everybody, but we wanted to start with youth based on the research," she said.
San Francisco high school students' suicide rates are comparable to their counterparts in the rest of the country and fluctuate from year to year. San Francisco has about 100 suicides among all ages each year, and about one to three of those deaths involve people under age 20, according to San Francisco Suicide Prevention officials.
A 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that about 26 percent of San Francisco students reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks, while 13 percent said they had "seriously considered" attempting suicide in the prior year and 9 percent reported at least one attempt in that time period.
Focus groups conducted by San Francisco Suicide Prevention found that all students interviewed favored adding a text-based service to the current types of help already available. A quarter of the students said they would prefer text over all forms of communication in a crisis while 25 percent indicated they would want to speak to someone face-to-face, 25 percent would use a hotline and another 25 percent preferred chat.
"It was really glaring how antiquated the notion of a traditional hotline was," said Jonathan Mark Herzenberg, a school-based clinical psychologist who participated in the San Francisco Suicide Prevention task force studying the text option.
Herzenberg, associate head of student life at Drew School in San Francisco, said texting generally surpasses all modes of communication for teens. "They don't break up in a relationship over the phone or face to face," he said. "They don't ask each other out over the phone or face-to-face. It's over text."
Text-based hotlines started in other parts of the country, including Nevada and Minnesota, have already shown some success. Minnesota's TXT4Life hotline last year handled more than 3,800 text sessions from 1,985 young people seeking help.
In the wake of his son's death, Strauss, of Chico, Calif., started the Alex Project, a nonprofit that promotes texting access to lifesaving crisis center services.
Strauss' goal is for a statewide and ultimately nationwide 24-hour crisis texting service. But even then, he said, the work will continue. "There will be something after texting," he said. "The crisis centers, because they struggle with funding, will always be one generation behind. But what's at stake is lives."
Jacqueline Monetta, a 17-year-old senior at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco, described the best friend she lost to suicide in 2010 as the "queen of texters."
She'll never know if her friend would have turned to a text-based service for help, but Monetta said that wasn't even an option for her.
"It's surprising that there hasn't been a texting program. I rarely talk to any student that called a hotline," Monetta said.
(Contact San Francisco Chronicle writer Victoria Colliver at email@example.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)