Without hearing the human voice, texters also felt less likely to be judged.
As many as 42 per cent of people who texted said they would not have sought help via phone or another service if the textline had not been available, found the independent review by the Australian Health Services Research Institute at the University of Wollongong.
In 29 per cent of the text conversations, some lasting an hour, suicide was actively considered.
Describing the program’s success as “extraordinary”, Lifeline’s chief executive Colin Seery said there are plans to expand the texting service to 12 hours per day and potentially extending it to a 24/7 service within two years.
Mr Seery said the “aha moment” was discovering the service was reaching “under-represented groups that we struggle to get to” via traditional counselling. This included men, who take their own lives at three times the rate of women, people in regional and remote areas, people with a disability and those from Indigenous communities.
More people from the lesbian, gay, trans and intersex community were also texting. Research by La Trobe University found 71 per cent did not use traditional counselling because they anticipated discrimination.
The text helpline was developed by suicide prevention expert Dr Sally Bradford. Early testing of prototypes found people wanted personalised responses, and not a “cut and paste job'”.
Help seekers told researchers they wanted a “non judgmental and objective human connection in the first text message”, according to a detailed account in Social Ventures quarterly magazine.
To do that, counsellors at Lifeline provide their names, something phone counsellors don’t divulge.
Counsellors at Lifeline at Balgowlah said help seekers using text were also more direct: It may take three sentences before text users said they were “thinking of suicide,” one said.
“They wouldn’t be comfortable saying these things out loud,” another said.
An American study on why millennials hate talking on the phone found four out of five respondents felt they had to prepare themselves before making a call. They said calls took too long, there was a risk someone could eavesdrop, and they had little time on a call to consider a response. “You can feel vulnerable in terms of how you come across and what you’re going to say,” the survey found.
In a submission to the Productivity Commission this year, Lifeline forecast that if the service was to run 24 hours seven days a week it would prevent 968 people from taking their lives, avoid 12,585 non-fatal suicide attempts and reduce distress in 94,552 people.
The text trial was funded by the federal government. Volunteers can apply at lifeline.org.au
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Text 0477 13 11 14 available 6.00pm – Midnight (AEST), 7 days a week
Julie Power is a senior journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.