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News / Health / Health Wire

Washington launches mental health, school safety helpline for teens

By Jayati Ramakrishnan, The Seattle Times
Published: June 12, 2024, 7:44am

SEATTLE — Growing up closeted in Eastern Washington, Conner Mertens often found himself struggling.

Before he made headlines in 2014 for coming out as bisexual to his college football team, the Kennewick teen faced anxiety and depression. He remembered making a call to the Trevor Project hotline, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ+ youth.

“I called, heard a voice on the other end, and I hung up. That was all I needed. Just hearing someone’s voice was enough,” Mertens said. “I don’t want it to get lost on anyone the power of those tools.”

On Tuesday, the Washington Attorney General’s Office launched a youth-focused hotline that grew out of Mertens’ desire to help others in the same way. HearMeWA is a statewide reporting system for youth facing any kind of challenge or crisis: everything from food insecurity and social difficulties to suicidal thoughts and threats of violence at school.

Any Washington resident under the age of 25 can use the hotline, which is operated by the gun violence prevention nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise. An adult can also make a report on a youth’s behalf if they have concerns about their safety or well-being.

To access the helpline, call 888-537-1634, text 738477, download the mobile app or visit the website at HearMeWa.org.

The idea was born in 2016 after Mertens, then a college student, read about a string of suicides in his hometown.

He sent a text to then-state senator Sharon Brown, asking her if she’d be willing to talk with him about a program to prevent youth suicides. Within 24 hours, he was sitting at her kitchen table discussing the idea.

The goal, Mertens said, was to create a tool for suicide prevention, rather than intervention.

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The hotline is staffed all day, every day by trained, paid crisis counselors, who will then review the report and connect the person with a service provider — such as a school counselor, a mental health crisis worker, law enforcement or other community services.

Jessica Jackson, national crisis center director for Sandy Hook Promise, said Washington’s program is unique in that it offers different levels of response. Responders do prioritize threats to immediate safety, she said, but they also respond to calls for things that may not be as imminent, but are still causing youth stress or anguish.

Jackson said staff respond to all tips within two minutes. Even if the caller doesn’t need an immediate welfare check or response, a crisis counselor can still offer them resources, such as a connection to the Trevor Project, the 988 crisis line or its youth service, Teen Link.

The Washington State Legislature allocated close to $1.96 million in the state budget to launch the program. It will cost $958,000 a year to operate, according to the Attorney General’s Office, which will administer the program.

Several other states have hotlines for youth in crisis. Similar programs in Oregon, Colorado, Utah and Michigan have published annual reports with stories of the hotline alerting school officials and allowing mental health officials to provide treatment to students who were contemplating suicide, or even those who were in crisis and made threats about school shootings.

But HearMeWA founders say the state’s new program has a broader scope.

“Similar reporting systems elsewhere around the country rely solely on schools to respond,” the Attorney General’s Office said in a news release. “HearMeWA is the first-ever program to expand this type of service statewide, offering alternatives beyond schools or 911. That is especially critical in rural communities, where emergency services are often the first and only resource for youth in crisis.”

The program also differs from Teen Link, a youth hotline operated by Crisis Connections. Teen Link is a peer-to-peer resource staffed by youth volunteers, and has limited hours, according to the Attorney General’s Office. HearMeWA will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is staffed by trained crisis counselors.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he doesn’t view the program as a substitute for the lack of youth resources, but as a starting point to quickly respond when teens are struggling.

The program launches during a time when teens and youth are facing mounting stressors in their daily lives. Less than a week before the hotline was announced, two Seattle-area high schoolers were killed — one on the Garfield High School campus and one in the parking lot of a Big 5 Sporting Goods store in Renton.

Data from the state’s Healthy Youth Survey shows that mental health outcomes among 10th graders are improving, but remain “highly concerning,” with six in 10 of those surveyed reporting anxiety or inability to stop worrying.

The survey also showed that 30% of 10th graders reported persistent depressive feelings, and nearly 15% reported contemplating suicide.

Before launching the program, the Attorney General’s Office solicited input from hundreds of youth organizations across the state, and consulted a youth advisory group.

One of those advisers, Bainbridge High School sophomore Makena Crosser, said she hopes her peers will use the hotline to report concerns of violence, but also to just feel there’s someone listening to them.

“Currently, they’re not heard enough,” she said.

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