Two years ago, MIT’s long-running Nightline phone service shut down, leaving the campus without an organized peer-to-peer support system. However, an anonymous email-based program, Peer2Peer, is tentatively expected to start operating next semester.
Like Nightline, Peer2Peer will be staffed by MIT students and is intended to be a “safety net” where students can turn when they feel overwhelmed, and a potential “gateway to other student support services,” as Peer2Peer student coordinators Tzipora R. Wagner ’12 and Isabella S. Lubin ’13 put it.
Lubin said that when students feel stressed or overwhelmed, “a lot of them don’t feel comfortable reaching out to Mental or Medical for the first step,” or that they might have a concern that is best addressed by a fellow student. This is where Peer2Peer comes into play. It will be an outlet for Institute-induced stress — a “safeguard against feeling alone,” said Evan Waldheter, one of the doctors from MIT Mental Health who works on the program.
Although Peer2Peer is similar to the previous Nightline service with respect to its volunteer staff and peer-based support services, the similarities end there. “We are not trying to reopen Nightline. This is a service that has been built from the ground up,” said Wagner.
Peer2Peer hopes to increase student usage from that of Nightline using what Wagner calls the “low barrier” email platform. Rheinila Fernandes, also from MIT Mental Health, notes some students may feel more comfortable communicating online rather than via phone call. “The main objective is just to increase accessibility to students who may not otherwise feel comfortable reaching out,” said Waldheter.
Peer2Peer will also operate 24/7 thanks to the online model. According to Wagner, Peer2Peer student volunteers will spend “two to three hours a week answering emails” at any time of the day, and students who write to Peer2Peer can expect an answer within a few hours. Students interested in volunteering can email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Peer2Peer will begin operating “as soon as possible,” said Waldheter. The development team expects this to be next semester. Wagner and Lubin, both former Nightline volunteers, have been working with staff from all across campus to create a new peer-based support program since the closing of Nightline in 2010.
“We’ve met with people from the Division of Student Life, from Student Support Services, from housing, from Mental and Medical, really people all across the board. … Whatever service we get out of this is going to be fully backed by everyone. It’s going to be the brainchild of so many different people,” said Lubin.
Nightline, which began running in 1978, operated from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. and received calls dealing with “everything from roommate troubles to serious calls involving rape, depression, and suicide,” according to an article published on the Division of Student Life (DSL) website. The program was shut down due to a lack of traffic from MIT students and too much usage from outside of MIT. According to the DSL website, Nightline was only receiving one to two calls per week from MIT students at the time of its closing. One benefit of Peer2Peer is that the system can require certificates or an MIT email address that will limit the amount of users to just MIT students and facilitate quick responses.
Prior to the development of the Peer2Peer program, MIT had announced it would contract with a national email-based service, Student SPILL. SPILL has been used at several schools nationwide, including the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin, according to Fernandes. However, the students and administrators behind the planning of the new peer support program decided not to contract with Student SPILL after changes were made to the business model. “The company is no longer going to be focused on serving college students and is changing their focus to general wellness,” said Lubin. The development team instead decided to create a unique service.
Wagner hopes this program will address MIT’s specific needs in terms of peer-to-peer support. “It’s exciting to make something that is ours that we can really tailor to MIT’s needs,” she said.