Lynn Bert, a pediatric nurse manager at South Nassau Communities Hospital, knows from caring for teens — having two of her own — that when teenagers have problems, they don't go to adults. They go to their friends.
So when the Long Island Crisis Center, a nonprofit agency that provides emergency counseling, sought help in reaching young adults, Bert and her colleagues brainstormed ways to get kids to spread the word themselves.
Posters in the high school wouldn't be enough. "A kid's not likely to stand by the poster and copy down the phone number," Bert says.
They also considered making business cards or key chains. "Then I realized that all of those kids have cell phones in their pockets," Bert says. "So if we could put the number in their cell phones and one of their friends came up to them with a problem, they could give them the number."
That was the beginning of Project HELP — Hospitals Empowering Lifelines Through Peers — a collaboration between the hospital and the LICC that Bert hopes to expand to other hospitals in the area. Now, every teen who comes through South Nassau's emergency department or pediatric unit hears about the crisis center hotline. Nurses wait as the kids type or scan the hotline number into their phones. A techno-savvy ED nurse designed a quick-response code for scanning. "We tell every kid to give the number to three friends — a pay-it-forward type of thing," says Bert. Teens can either call or text the center and receive counseling either over the phone, online or by text. "At first we were a little nervous. Would the parents object to us giving the number? So we decided to give it to the parents, too."
For her efforts, in December Bert received a Healthcare Heroes award from the Long Island Business News. To help launch the project, she put together a multidisciplinary group that included pediatric, ED and maternity nurses; a couple of social workers; a pediatrician; the child life specialist; and an educator. "We all met and went to the administration and said, 'We want to start this program,'" she says. Once they got the OK, they wanted to hear what teens thought. They put together two focus groups, one from the hospital's siblings' support group and another from an alternative high school in the area.
"The kids said, 'We would never call the crisis center,' " Bert recalls. "We asked theym why not. They'd say, 'Because we're not in crisis. We just need help.' " That's why they included "help" in the name.
Theresa Buhse, associate director at LICC, is pleased that the collaboration has brought in an additional 30 crisis calls from teens — half of them very recently — since it began in February 2012.
"A lot of teens, particularly gay, bisexual and transgender kids, feel so isolated that they have no one to talk to about what's going on," Buhse says. "It's important they know that there's a safe place for them to call. Anything we can do to get the word out is a great help."
Bert and her team put a lot of thought into their script. "The way we say it is, 'If you or one of your friends has a problem, you can call.' Because a lot of times when these kids call for help, they don't say it's them. They'll say, 'My friend has a problem.' So we're giving them a tool to help their friends."
They've spread the word about Project HELP at churches, community groups and high schools in the area. One health teacher had the kids take out their cellphones — which piqued their interest — and put the number into their phones.
Bert also presented the project at the Long Island Health Network Symposium in 2012. "Our goal is to get all the hospitals on Long Island to be doing it," she says.
The team got a morale boost in January when a young girl came to the hospital for a medical reason. "The staff found out she had been a cutter, and they went to give her the phone number — and she pulled out her phone and it was already in there!" Bert says.
The girl's friends had given her the number. "We all got very excited because her friends saw, 'Here's a girl with problems.' They did exactly what we wanted them to do."