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Stanford University School of Medicine

Texting for help: New study shows what works

8089620921_cc239f44c8_kIt's easy to order dinner via text or to text a cable provider or (in the Silicon Valley, at least) most any other business. Not surprisingly, mental health crisis hotlines have followed suit and now offer their services via text.

But what works in this new milieu?

Jure Leskovec, PhD, an associate professor of computer science at Stanford, along with graduate students Tim Althoff and Kevin Clark, tapped the large datasets of raw material generated by these texts to identify which techniques actually help people in need. The study, which appeared recently in Transactions of the Association for Computational Linguistics, analyzed 660,000 messages from 15,000 counseling sessions.

As described in a recent Stanford News article:

For this study, the researchers developed new methods of natural language analysis to determine how the words and phrases that counselors used influenced whether distressed texters reported feeling better at the end of the conversation.

And among their findings:

'Successful counselors quickly got to the heart of the issue and spent more of the conversation dealing with the problem,' Althoff said. 'The less successful counselors took a lot more time to get to know the problem.'

This finding is related to another interesting pattern: successful counselors tend to respond more effectively to ambiguous messages. Presented with exactly the same situation – a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, for example – a successful counselor typically asks more clarifying questions. They paraphrase responses to make sure they understand, and they thank the texter for reaching out.

The article notes that until now, most research on counseling has focused on a small number of sessions. "We can look at orders of magnitude more data than previous studies allowed, to gain new insights and precisely quantify which counseling strategies worked," said Leskovec. He also, the piece, notes "said he believes such findings could be used to train counselors how to respond most effectively when a person in the midst of a crisis reaches out for help."

Previously: Reducing alarm fatigue: Packard Children's researchers apply big data to a big problem, "Follow their leads": Advice on helping children cope with transitionsand Adolescent mental health the focus of upcoming Stanford conference
Image by Paul Jacobson

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