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Source: http://web.mit.edu/nightline; photoillustration by Jessica Liu
Until recently, Nightline’s web site presented a random image to users. Here’s a selection of some of their previous images.
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Nightline, MIT’s student-run hotline for counseling, information, and support, is ceasing operations for at least two semesters while it decides on several major structural changes. Its coordinators hope that Nightline will be able to return in the fall of 2011 at least in some reduced capacity.

Until this semester, Nightline’s anonymous staffers had been taking calls from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. every night of the term. It’s a confidential service that has no caller ID, callers are never identified, specifics of the call are never shared, and staffers’ identities are kept secret.

Leaves DUE/DSL for Medical

Nightline is no longer advised by Student Support Services (S^3). In February, S^3 moved from the Division of Student Life (DSL) to the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education (DUE). The decision to temporarily suspend Nightline came from a cross-unit review committee.

The Nightline Review Committee was formed over the summer to look at Nightline’s position in DUE. The committee — which was made up of S^3 staff, MIT Medical staff, Dean of Student Life (DSL) staff, and the two student coordinators of Nightline — decided that Nightline would leave S^3 and be advised by MIT Mental Health.

“This wasn’t an internal Nightline review, that is clear” a Nightline staffer said. Nightline is not comfortable disclosing the identities of its staff.

According to Jessica L. Bainbridge-Smith ’11, one of the Nightline student coordinators, the sole reason that Nightline is closed this year is S^3’s move from the DSL.

“The DUE is more of an academic resource, and we are not an academic resource,” Bainbridge-Smith said.

Nightline’s support from the MIT administration helps mainly with the organizational aspects of the program, such as budget — but also with leading support groups, where Nightline staffers meet to reflect on their calls.

Outsiders led to staff burnout

As the new advisors for Nightline, MIT Mental Health will require changes within the program — in particular, a way to deal with the increased number of non-MIT calls.

“Historically, our philosophy has been to take calls from anyone” Emma C. Jeffries ’11, the other student coordinator, said. “But … it was taking time off of our primary philosophy, which is listening to students.”

MIT Mental Health will be more strict about keeping calls MIT-only, especially because staff are not trained or licensed in any way to deal with non-student issues.

Outside calls were becoming a large problem for Nightline; they were estimated to be over half of all calls. They also tended to be repeat callers and lasted longer.

“It was frustrating staffers” Jeffries said, “…We are not a service that you can use repeatedly, or use in place of real psychological help.”

“That is where the staffer burnout was happening,” said Bainbridge-Smith.

Room 13, a similar counseling service at Harvard, has a policy of directing people to a different resource when it becomes clear that they are not Harvard-affiliated.

Jeffries said that peer institutions usually have 20–30 staffers for this kind of program. This year, Nightline only has 12 staff members, and 5 more will graduate by next fall. Nightline has no new staffers this term.

A new Nightline next year?

These are all challenges Nightline must overcome before it can return. Jeffries and Bainbridge-Smith say that the goal is for Nightline to return in limited capacity in fall 2011.

This semester, Nightline will try to decide its next step. They intend to use the spring semester to implement those decisions and to recruit staff. Whether or not they reopen next fall depends on the solutions they find and if enough staff can be recruited.

David W. Randall, an associate dean at S^3 who has advised Nightline, is confident that Nightline will be back.

“Nightline is not dead” said Randall, “There is absolutely a commitment for there to be peer support for MIT students.”

Nightline’s place at MIT

Jeffries and Bainbridge-Smith will be organizing efforts in the coming months to document and celebrate Nightline’s history, which began in 1978.

The Nightline staffer said that calls are usually about problems such as adjusting to MIT, roommate issues, or a relationship issue. Less common are serious calls about long term depression, rape or suicide.

“But we tend to remember them more,” he said.

Because people who call are frequently not in the mood to be explicitly appreciative, it is hard to gauge the true effect Nightline has had on them.

“At Nightline, you sort of have to be realistic about the things you can hope to change and the things you can help people cope with” he said.

Randall, however, says “In my four years of advising, I know of at least two lives that the service saved.”

“In terms of being a staffer, Nightline has been a great thing for me,” Bainbridge-Smith said. “We try to maintain staffer sanity, so there is a lot of good support… and you can see the effect that it has had on staffers, because there is a really strong alumni bond,” she added.

“You see a different side of MIT” added Jeffries, “the softer side of things.”

Were you or someone you know affected by Nightline? Send your story to news@tech.mit.edu.