Abstract: Identifying Essential Skills for Digital Crisis Intervention: Lessons from an Online Sexual Assault Hotline (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Identifying Essential Skills for Digital Crisis Intervention: Lessons from an Online Sexual Assault Hotline

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Liberty Ballroom I, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Carrie Moylan, PhD, Associate Professor, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Melanie Carlson, MSW, Research Assistant, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Michelle Munro-Kramer, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Rebecca Campbell, PhD, Professor, Michigan State University, east lansing, MI
Background and Purpose: Crisis hotlines are an essential source of help-seeking for survivors of sexual assault, often serving as a first step in seeking help. While typically these hotlines were delivered via telephone, in recent years more programs have added text- or web-based hotlines to match increasing preference for technology-assisted communication (e.g. texting, web-chatting), particularly among youth. However, there is little research or guidance about how to deliver short-term crisis intervention via emerging digital mediums.

Methods: In partnership with a web-based hotline for sexual assault survivors on a college campus, we reviewed 228 de-identified transcripts of conversations from the web-based hotline that took place between November 2018 – June 2020. A coding framework was developed and refined by the authors and hotline program staff. The coding framework included process codes (capturing the crisis intervention skills that were used), descriptive codes (reflecting topics of conversation), and structural codes (e.g., length, unexpected disconnections). Each transcript was coded by two members of the research team and discrepancies were resolved through discussion. Thematic analysis was used to identify a) key skills for crisis intervention on a text- or web-based hotline and b) challenges that hotline workers faced when engaging with chatters.

Results: Many of the skills identified are commonly taught crisis intervention skills, which required modification for the digital environment. For example, active listening in a digital environment was demonstrated by prompt and thorough responses, accurate recall of details shared previously, and posing of appropriate follow-up questions. Other skills are unique to the digital environment, such as the need to explain a pause when locating referral information or keeping track of multiple conversation threads. The digital environment also posed several challenges to communication. Sometimes conversations were punctuated by long delays, which if not explained could lead a chatter to disconnect from the chat. Occasional miscommunications occurred which seemed to stem from the difficulty of expressing tone in written text. Many of the chats abruptly ended, which precluded hotline workers from engaging in typical closing tasks, such as reminding the chatter of topics discussed, assessing any additional needs, or offering the web-based hotline as a resource in the future. There was no clear pattern across chats that abruptly ended, which may indicate that this is a feature, suggesting that it may of text- and web- based communication, rather than a reflection of the chatter’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

Conclusions and Implications: Our findings have clear implications for the training of text- and web-based hotline workers. In addition to typical crisis intervention skills, providers should be trained in specific skills to enhance text communication and promote positive rapport. Specific challenges in digital crisis communication, such as the lack of a clear close to the conversation, might have further implications for programs, for instance by challenging the collection of post-chat data for program evaluation purposes. Social Work could play an important role in strengthening digital crisis intervention skills by educating our students in practice skills for technology mediated services and working with community partners to strengthen services.