Next week marks the beginning of the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, the premier international platform for advancing entrepreneurial solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. (Follow #SkollWF on Twitter for updates on the Forum.)
In the meantime, we were fortunate to get in touch with Nancy Lublin, founder & CEO of Crisis Text Line—one of the five recipients of this year’s Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship Awards.
Lublin launched Crisis Text Line—funded by a mix of unrestricted individual and private donations—in 2013 and connects people who need immediate help with issues relating to relationships, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, sexual assault, and more, with trained counselors 24/7.
We spoke with Lublin about the $1.5 million award, how it will change the trajectory of Crisis Text Line, and the power of “741741” to save lives.
Media Impact Funders: Congratulations on receiving the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship! Crisis Text Line is set to receive $1.5 million to scale its work and increase its impact. How does this new windfall change the trajectory of Crisis Text Line? What’s the plan?
Nancy Lublin: Thank you! Feeling super honored and even more grateful to be recognized by the Skoll Foundation. The week before this was announced, we processed our 100 millionth message in the United States. It took us five and a half years. We expect to process our next 100 million messages in just 11 months. So this money, network, and stamp of approval is like a giant bowl of orange slices during halftime.
MIF: And speaking of data, what are the key learnings? How can they inform the national conversation around mental illness in America?
NL: From day one, we planned to leverage the data to make us faster and more accurate, and to make the world more informed. This is the largest mental health dataset that’s been collected, stored, and analyzed. We’ve learned the worst day of the week for eating disorders is Monday. The toughest month for substance abuse is August. And Montana is a beautiful place to visit, and it’s the Number One state for suicidal ideation. We have made our aggregated and anonymized data available on CrisisTrends.org for journalists, policymakers, and anyone interested in understanding the issues their communities face.
MIF: What’s the biggest misconception about mental illness that we, as a society, need to know and understand?
NL: Mental health is not a niche. Everyone has mental health. Have a brain? You have mental health. (Kind of like teeth—everyone has dental health!) Most people will need support to stay mentally healthy at some point in their life—and in most countries, including the United States, it’s hard to get affordable, high-quality mental health care. That leaves millions of people in crisis.
MIF: And speaking of impact, what are your main objectives?
Our goal is to make it easier to get help, than avoid getting help. Free support, 24/7, by text makes us very easy to use. And we want to reach those people quickly with high satisfaction, so we track wait times and satisfaction ratings.
MIF: What do you and your team grapple with? What’s the biggest obstacle you’re facing right now with this work?
NL: We’re a tech company but we believe in humans. Almost 66% of texters say they’ve shared something with us that they’ve never shared with anyone else. Those texters deserve a human, not a bot. So, in order to scale, we need more Crisis Counselors. You don’t have to have a fancy degree or even a lot of free time. You just need to be an empathic human. With a laptop. And snacks. You apply online, go through a background check, and a 30 hour training—if you pass, you volunteer from your couch, when it suits you.
MIF: Crisis Text Line has processed more than 100 million messages. You wrote a blog about it, listing 100 things you learned. No. 84 on that list is that CTL sent a counselor to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the shooting in Parkland, Fla., last year. It led to a partnership with students there. How is that model going, and do you plan to have more of a physical presence in schools around the country?
NL: That was an awful time. I hope it never happens again. But the reality is that schools experience trauma every day in America. The fastest way to reach all of them was to create an online toolkit for schools to be able to download. They can find it in minutes and have resources, posters, stickers, scripts, etc., immediately. One cool thing we’re working on is a campaign with Active Minds to get our number, 741741, on the back of every student ID. Again, make it easier to get help than avoid getting help. Put our number everywhere!
MIF: What insights do you have for funders working on health issues, especially in the mental health space?
NL: Oooh, I love this question! Stop funding pet projects and look at creating synergy. Do we need many text lines? No. That would confuse people and fragment the data. Do we need several anti-stigma groups? No. We need a handful of very well-funded campaigns. Instead of thinking in small increments, I’d like to see funders push all their chips in on a few big hands. Mental health action needs bold change.
MIF: Can you share some lessons from previous your successes at Do Something and Dress for Success that inform how you go about your work at Crisis Text line?
NL: I think not-for-profits are working on the world’s biggest problems. So we should have the world’s best people. Recruit the best. Pay a strong wage. Let go the ones who don’t cut it. We run charities, we are not charities.
MIF: Is there something I haven’t asked that you really want to talk about?
NL: I’m allergic to peppers.
Wait. That’s actually what I’d want to add—having a sense of humor matters. In mental health and also in the not-for-profit world. There needs to be room for joy, every day.