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Through the crisis via chat – How a Berlin start-up is revolutionising crisis counselling for young people

Mental health problems among young people are on the rise. However, many do not find it easy to seek help and support. The hurdles that young people seem to have to overcome are often simply too high. The Berlin start-up “krisenchat” shows how digital services can help to start these vital conversations. Co-founder Melanie Eckert talks to us about how the platform makes a real difference for young people with its low-threshold access to professional help.

Melanie Eckert in the Berlin office of krisenchat
Melanie Eckert is co-founder of “krisenchat.de”. krisenchat is a psychosocial counselling service via chat. Children, teenagers and young adults up to the age of 25 can contact krisenchat around the clock, 7 days a week, and get in touch with professional counsellors via the website, SMS or WhatsApp. The krisenchat chat service is free of charge for users and is financed exclusively by donations and made possible by sponsors.

The start-up krisenchat was founded in May 2020. What were your reasons for taking this step back then?

Even before coronavirus, there were far too few services for children and young people in crisis. Three of my co-founders, who were only 18 years old themselves at the time, had programmed an anti-bullying app for schools, which was quickly adapted to the needs at the start of the pandemic. It was clear to us that the mental stress for the youngest members of our society in particular would increase dramatically in this exceptional situation and that they needed easy access to professional help. That’s why we launched krisenchat as a 24/7, anonymous psychosocial counselling service for young people via chat and WhatsApp.

Telephone counselling is certainly a cornerstone for people in need. Why do you think this service doesn’t reach people of all ages?

Unfortunately, mental stress is still very stigmatised. At the same time, we know that 75% of all mental illnesses develop at a young age under 25 and that early help and therapy are particularly effective. The key question is therefore: How do we reach young people to educate them about difficult life situations and motivate them to get help? Because krisenchat was largely set up by very young and committed people, we were able to really incorporate their perspective. The target group is extremely reluctant to make phone calls and needs its own approach to these issues. We have specialised in this and offer advice via messenger, precisely because over 95% of the target group uses these services on a daily basis and can confide in them anonymously.

krisenchat team sits on the se:dot
The krisenchat office is located in the heart of Berlin. In addition to the traditional workstations, there is also a shared living room and kitchen, which is used for relaxation and exchange.

What concerns and worries do young people come to you with?

The top 3 topics are depressive symptoms, suicidal thoughts and self-harming behaviour. However, young people come to us with all kinds of different concerns. These range from lovesickness and loneliness to acutely dangerous situations in which our child protection team takes on cases because young people are suffering from physical or psychological violence.

Around 2/3 of those seeking help are young women. Why do young men find it so difficult to ask for help? And how do you try to reach them better and inform them about your services?

Mental health problems are generally still very stigmatised – especially among young men. Role models and the assumption that “you have to be strong” or that you have to deal with everything yourself are particularly prevalent among male sufferers. For the most part, society still lives by very stereotypical images that attribute emotional problems, crises or emotions in general primarily to women. Communicating that it is strong to open up about problems and that men are also sad, hurt or desperate is a long road that we are taking by devoting special attention to this topic. This is why we are also active on gaming platforms, for example, and cooperate with many influencers from the fields of music (rap), gaming, sport and fashion, because they can be incredibly important role models for young men in particular.

krisenchat employee on Sedus chair
The first step in the chat: listen, react empathetically and help the young person seeking help to sort out the situation

What does a “normal” working day of a counsellor look like for you?

Our volunteer counsellors work all over Germany. They work approx. 2-4 counselling shifts per month (2 hours each), which they can divide up as they wish. We have developed a platform for counselling entirely in-house, which provides counselling guidelines and resources and ensures that we are there for our chatters 24/7 via a shift schedule.

The majority of your team works remotely. How do you manage to make your employees feel like an integral part of the krisenchat team?

We set up completely remotely and realised after a year how important it is to have a place where at least part of the permanent core team can physically come together. We realised that we didn’t need a traditional office, but a place where we could chat and brainstorm. We deal with crises and really emotionally stressful issues on a daily basis, so self-care is very important and a nice environment is simply good for that. However, the majority of our daily work takes place remotely and Slack is our most important communication and information tool. An appreciative approach to written communication, digital exchange spaces and rituals, such as the digital lunch together, are important elements. We also try to get together at least twice a year on offsites for several days to work together on larger topics, cook together, celebrate and spend time together.

krisenchat team discusses
krisenchat currently works with a community of around 450 volunteer counsellors. There is hardly a lobby in Germany for dealing with mental stress, especially among young people. That is why the team is tackling this mammoth task with a strong community of volunteers, financial supporters and highly qualified employees who value a job with meaning.

You have a large meeting table in the kitchen. Is the kitchen a kind of central meeting point for you as a team?

The kitchen is a central point in every home or office. People brew tea together here, important meetings take place and there’s a long table that seats lots of people. I think it’s particularly great that it was made with a lot of love and passion by a friend of one of the co-founders during his training as a carpenter – so the target group is also present here.

The office of krisenchat in Berlin
There is a long dining table in the kitchen, which is used for communal lunches as well as team meetings. Spontaneous brainstorming sessions are held in a relaxed kitchen atmosphere thanks to the flexible se:lab board with the corresponding se:lab rack.

And one final question: you are a psychologist. What do you think the design of your office says about you as a start-up?

I think it’s great when the working environment and the office are filled with life and individuality. Of course, you also need a professional set-up, but the combination of partly private vintage furniture, art and plants ensures that a lot of people feel comfortable here and inspired to work. I am convinced that the furnishings, rooms and light have a huge impact on our well-being and our work. It is very fulfilling to see how the team makes the space their own and also uses it as a community space for self-organised dance meditation or other events after work. We have furnished everything ourselves and, as a social start-up, only have limited resources at our disposal; this also makes us creative and so the old movie theatre seats are no longer just seating options born out of necessity, but a popular retreat.

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TEXT AND INTERVIEW: BERNADETTE TREPTE | PHOTO: JOSEPHINE SEIDEL-LEUTERITZ

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