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Hashtags helping find young people in crisis

*Watch the full interview in the video player above*

It’s a world-first online project, run out of west Auckland, by volunteers sometimes in their pyjamas - and it’s helping to save young lives around the world.

A not-for-profit organisation, Zeal runs creative workshops and programmes for teenagers in youth centres around the country.

But it’s also home to the Online Crisis Intervention programme, which supports social media users who are experiencing mental health crises, by keeping them chatting.

Zeal’s vision is to get help to every young person in crisis online, explains Elliot Taylor, executive director of Online Crisis Intervention.

The programme, which has its base in the Auckland suburb of Henderson, currently recruits an army of 30 volunteers around the country – many of them operating from home (even in their pyjamas, Taylor says) - to keep the programme live 20 hours a week.

They engage in direct message chats with around 30 to 50 young people a week, who can be anywhere in the world.  

Now the programme is in the course of expanding, with the help of the Vodafone NZ Foundation, which has handed out its largest charitable grant of $700,000 to Zeal.

Taylor outlines the programme’s goal in the next year to provide 24/7 support, through 200 volunteers located around the globe, and to help “hundreds of young people every week who are experiencing crisis”.

Online Crisis Intervention uses algorithms to search for certain hashtags, like #depressed or #suicidal, which help locate young people in distress. Its current focus is on Instagram.

“That’s based off our research that shows that's where there's a concentration of this content being posted by young people,” Taylor says. “These are young people wherever they are in the world… they're struggling, they're in pain and they're using this medium that is familiar to them, to be able to talk about that.” Taylor says there have many instances where the programme has saved lives.

The $700,000 grant has been invested in three distinct areas, Taylor explains. “One is to be able to identify every young person posting in crisis. Another is to build a volunteer army, and then to inter-personally support every young person posting in crisis,” he says.

The grant to Zeal is part of the Vodafone Foundation’s commitment to halve the number of excluded and disadvantaged young people by 2027.

Head of the Vodafone NZ Foundation, Lani Evans, says the OCI programme is seen as having the potential for scale, and the ability to have a strong impact on the well-being of young New Zealanders.

“Anything that we can do to provide young people with better access to support and resources when they're in a moment of crisis is important. This particular project has the potential and is already doing that for many young people, and I can just see it getting bigger and bigger,” she says.

“We have some of the worst suicide [rates] in the OECD in New Zealand and they're not getting better… so we need to be doing things differently. And I really think that that's what Zeal's doing with Online Crisis Intervention.”

* Vodafone is a partner of Newsroom.

Where to get help:

- Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (24/7), Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7), text free to 234 (8am-midnight) or web chat (10am-10pm)

- Kidsline: 0800 54 37 54 (24/7; Kidsline Buddies available 4pm-9pm)

- Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 TAUTOKO / 0508 828 865 (24/7)

- What's Up: 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 942 8787 (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends) or live chat (3pm-10pm)

- Healthline: 0800 611 116 (24/7)

- Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

- Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 or text free to 4202 (24/7)

- If you feel you or someone you know is at immediate risk, call 111.

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