Minnesota's suicide call center is getting as many cell-phone text messages from teens in a day as it used to get phone calls from teens in a month.

That's because Carlton County applied for and received a $1.44 million federal grant to roll out a seven-county texting hotline for suicide prevention.

"We looked at recent suicides, and we looked at what kids were doing prior to those suicides," said Dave Lee, director of Carlton County's public health and human services. "They were texting people or they were on Facebook."

The texting hotline has already been promoted in all Carlton County school districts and the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School. The Carlton County Public Health and Human Services Department is in the midst of meeting with other districts,

Indian reservations and mental health centers in St. Louis, Cook, Lake, Aitkin, Itasca and Koochiching counties.

When work is complete this school year, about 22,000 middle and high school students are expected to be in possession of both texting and telephone numbers to the state suicide hotline.

Northeastern Minnesota has one of the highest suicide rates among all ages in the state, Lee said, and data from a 2010 Minnesota Student Survey shows an "alarming rate" of suicidal tendencies and behavioral health issues among area youth. In St. Louis County, for example, eight freshmen and six seniors said they had attempted suicide in the last year, and 37 freshmen and 29 seniors said they had suicidal thoughts in the last year. In Carlton County, seven freshmen and three seniors said they had attempted suicide in 2010.

"There have been numerous attempts at trying to improve education, awareness and response," Lee said. "And we haven't impacted the rate."

That's why Carlton County applied for -- with its texting proposal -- a rarely earned grant that Minnesota has tried for unsuccessfully four times before. In 2011, it finally received a three-year Garrett Lee Smith Suicide Prevention grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The texting program, which is also in use in Nevada, allows people to text "life" to 839863 and be connected with a counselor at a computer. They work at the same place that answers the suicide hotline calls in Minnesota.

Conversations last anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, said Traci Churi, the text coordinator at the Richfield, Minn., Crisis Connection.

"We have figured out an hour text session equates to a 10- to 15-minute phone call," she said, "because of the time it takes to go back and forth."

Before rolling out the texting program, the center was getting roughly three calls a month from teenagers, and now it gets about three texts a day, primarily from the Carlton County area. Since the program started keeping track in November, about 160 people have texted counselors. That number is expected to grow as more teens in Northeastern Minnesota learn the number.

"We have finally lowered the threshold enough so that kids are willing to reach out," Lee said. "Some, we try to move from texting to a phone call and they said, 'We won't do it.' As soon as we built a better communication tool, kids seized it."

'Way less awkward'

Through texting, kids "are reaching out and talking about tough subjects they weren't talking to anyone about," Churi said, including challenging relationships, maltreatment, aggressive feelings and bullying. "We can de-escalate that before it turns into ... a violent situation."

The biggest reason for texting so far has been relationship issues, including breakups, Lee said.

"They are traumatized," he said. "They can't envision that their life will get any better. All of a sudden, they can't see beyond tomorrow."

The counselors attempt to move texters to a place where they might talk face to face with someone from their area. And if a situation becomes an emergency, counselors work with law enforcement to find the texter. That has happened four times since the program began.

Meghann Condit, grant coordinator for the program, goes to schools to educate kids with presentations and posters. Students receive a glow-in-the-dark bracelet with both phone and text numbers to the suicide call center if they plug the text number into their phones.

At the high schools, she's working to help form student groups that will continue to educate fellow students about the program. Condit also asks students to write down the name of an adult they trust, and those names are passed on to the texting counselors for referral to kids once their school is known. That also will allow schools to give those people proper training.

The usual people, such as counselors, aren't always the ones students turn to, Lee said.

Duluth East junior Eli Lee plans to be part of a trained student group that will try to make sure every student at East knows how to either text or call for help. Teens prefer texting because it's convenient, and more students having a crisis might feel comfortable texting rather than calling, he said.

"It is way less awkward to text," he said.

He's counting on members of the various clubs at East to help spread the word about the number and student helpers, through an assembly and special T-shirts they will wear.

"If you have a class of 400 kids, our goal ... is to reach all 400," Eli Lee said, noting that many teens suffer from depression. "It could be the kid who sits alone at lunch or the football captain. We have no idea who it is."