Text-based communications effective in supporting sexual assault survivors

August 26, 2021 - Caroline Brooks

Only 16% of college student sexual assault survivors seek support through existing college channels. To expand access to services while providing guidance on how campuses nationwide can provide them, a team from Michigan State University launched and measured the use of a novel text-based communication service.

The study findings, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, are the first to report in a peer-reviewed journal the impact of these services compared to traditional hotlines offered by college campus support centers. The new text service, the Crisis Chat, is operated by MSU’s Center for Survivors.

“In its first year of operation, which was 2019, almost as many survivors reached out via Crisis Chat as used the telephone hotline, doubling the total number of survivors who accessed hotline support,” said Carrie Moylan, lead author of the study and associate professor in MSU’s School of Social Work. “This suggests that college-aged survivors are likely to use web-chat and text-based hotlines, which should encourage other programs to consider adding this service.”

Moylan’s study co-authors include MSU colleagues Rebecca Campbell, professor of psychology, and Melanie Carlson, doctoral student in the School of Social Work. Moylan and Campbell also hold key roles on the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Expert Advisory Workgroup at MSU.

“We knew that college students would probably use a chat service, but it was surprising and gratifying to see that not only did hundreds of survivors use the chat service, but that chat quickly grew to be used as frequently as the traditional telephone hotline,” Moylan said.

To evaluate interactions taking place over the Crisis Chat, Moylan and team used confidential information collected by advocates after every chat or call. They also interviewed Center for Survivors staff and volunteers about their experiences with Crisis Chat to assess how the chat presents both benefits and challenges when compared to the traditional telephone hotline.

“Over Crisis Chat, people are generally more forthcoming and in my experience as a volunteer, they do not typically preface their experiences and are more apt to describe their situation and jump into the conversation immediately,” said Erin Shrum, a student in MSU’s College of Law who completed Sexual Assault Crisis Intervention training in 2020. “People using the chat generally want to get something off their chest before they begin diving into feelings and resources, whereas callers may need some initial grounding exercises or myth-busting before volunteers can begin focusing on the caller's feelings and providing resources.”

Shrum also noted how her time working with the Crisis Chat helped prepare her for forthcoming volunteer opportunities.

“The initial training taught me so much about how trauma works and how to be genuine when someone is brave enough to share an experience with you; Crisis Chat also helped me reflect on and refine my empathy and communication skills,” Shrum said. “These skills have transcended my volunteer work into my work relationships — and even friendships.”

As successful as text-based services can be, Moylan noted that launching new technologies carries multiple challenges. For example, offering web or text-based hotlines may require additional training for staff and volunteers, in particular gauging the tone and tenor of a survivor seeking help.

“We hope that our study reaches audiences at other campuses and community organizations so they can see how successful Crisis Chat was in its first year and consider adding a web/text hotline to their services,” Moylan said. “We also hope that our community will encourage survivors to use whatever method of reaching out feels right for them, whether that’s a telephone hotline, an in-person meeting with a therapist, or a web/text hotline like Crisis Chat.” 

(Note for media: Please include the following link to the study in all online media coverage: https://journals-sagepub-com.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/doi/full/10.1177/08862605211025036)