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Make Peer Counseling Available Over Text

We are the loneliest generation, and our mental health suffers accordingly.

So argues a study published last year by Cigna, a global health services provider based in Philadelphia, Pa. Cigna’s study, among other findings, suggests that 18 to 22 year olds in America are lonelier on average than even the elderly boomer population. This in part explains the recent uptick in depression rates among college students – we have less meaningful social interaction on average than our older counterparts, leading to a toll on mental health.

It is in this context of a national reckoning with mental health that Harvard attempts to support its students, members of this loneliest generation, as they navigate four years of comparatively intense academic and social pressure. And indeed, though Harvard’s practices are necessarily imperfect, they do provide a broad range of options to students suffering from mental health conditions. But in perusing options available to students, one notices that each resource requires a student seeking support to reach out in person or by phone. This creates a hole in the support network for students who don’t feel confident presenting their issues in a position of vulnerability.

Harvard’s mental health resources would do well to take a lesson from volunteer organization Samaritans, a Boston-based crisis support and suicide hotline, and make counseling services available over text message.

In 2015, after seeing a spike in suicides among young people, who are less likely to feel comfortable with phone conversations, Samaritans made their hotline accessible via text. As of 2018, their volunteers had responded to 10,000 text conversations in three years, suggesting a broad demand for the service.

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Currently, Harvard’s primary source of general peer-to-peer crisis counseling is Room 13, an excellent and compassionate service staffed by two student volunteers every night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. during the school year in the basement of Thayer Hall. Like Samaritans, Room 13 also has a phone line.

Real-time text-based counseling would be a wonderful addition to Room 13 as well as the other student peer counseling organizations. It would help reach students who are struggling deeply with mental health issues but don’t feel confident meeting a peer counselor face-to-face or talking on the phone. Furthermore, it would give students greater confidence that their anonymity is protected when they seek help. Students might feel comfortable sharing more over text than they would in person or by phone.

Well-meaning mental health agencies should realize that a face-to-face conversation with support services could be too far of a bridge for introverted students or those looking to protect their privacy. An effective text support system would guarantee confidentiality so students can be confident in the protection of their identity.

The apparent lack of an anonymous text-based support service is a gap that Harvard’s student and staff-operated mental health resources would do well to focus on. After Samaritans introduced texts to their lifeline, in a study period between Oct. 2015 and March 2016, half of texters Samaritans identified by age were found to be between the ages of 14 and 24, compared to just 9.3 percent of callers, according to statistics provided by the organization.

Furthermore, 96 percent of Samaritans texters had never called the hotline before, suggesting they were reaching a new audience with text. And the organization found that texters were ten times more likely to be at imminent risk of suicide, affirming that the added service reached those most in need.

Harvard would not be the first campus to introduce text counseling. Currently, seven schools use the text support line Lean on Me, a peer-to-peer service first launched at MIT in 2016 and inspired by Samaritans. Though Lean on Me volunteers are not crisis-trained, nor is their service designed to handle suicidal ideation, its use of text to connect students with supportive volunteers is an admirable first step.

We cannot expect Harvard to be immune from the national trends of poor mental health. But we can expect them to suit up for the challenge of fighting for the mental health of its students. Currently, our resources are deficient in at least one key resource that has proven effective in mental health at other schools. We should recognize that deficiency, and respond accordingly by providing students with a robust and trusted text counseling resource.

Nicholas C. Fahy ’22, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Pennypacker Hall.

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