Peer2Peer, an anonymous web-based peer support platform, launched late last month. The site allows users to chat with fellow students; the Institute launched the site as part of an ongoing effort to lower the barrier for seeking help with mental health issues. Peer2Peer was spearheaded by Berj Chilingirian ’16 and two professionals at MIT Mental Health, Evan Waldheter and Rheinila Fernandes.
Peer2Peer builds on another emotional health and well-being service, 7 Cups of Tea, which contacted Mental Health last spring offering to develop an adaptation of their chat system for the Institute.
Peer2Peer is now one of two major Institute-affiliated peer support networks. The other, Peer Ears, focuses on in-person support.
Peer2Peer also supplements a larger campus-wide mental health initiative, joining the ranks of other peer support platforms like Lean On Me, another anonymous service with which students communicate by text message. Lean On Me, unlike Peer2Peer, is not affiliated with the Institute.
Addressing the differences between Lean On Me and Peer2Peer, Waldheter highlighted Peer2Peer’s additional features inherited from 7 Cups of Tea.
“Peer2Peer offers one-on-one chat, like Lean On Me, but also allows users to join informal support groups, and take advantage of existing 7 Cups of Tea infrastructure such as online tools for general wellness, stress reduction, anxiety management, and overall mental health promotion.”
“LeanOnMe has no affiliation with MIT,” Chilingirian added. “I also think Peer2Peer will be used differently from LeanOnMe by virtue of the devices they [support]. I think the kinds of conversations you have on mobile devices are different from those you may have on your laptop. For example, Peer2Peer’s interface allows you to select a listener based on what you are interested in talking about and has a built-in listener support chat for listeners to support one another and share advice.”
Peer2Peer users talk to dedicated “listeners” who participate in training that includes a thirty-minute virtual tutorial about MIT-specific mental health resources. There are currently 19 listeners, but Peer2Peer hopes to increase this number to around fifty by the end of the semester.
Peer2Peer originally started as an email-based service after Nightline, MIT’s crisis hotline, shut down in 2010 because the majority of callers weren’t from MIT. “Individuals from outside the community were calling in for support and volunteers were not equipped to handle the flux of non-MIT related calls,” Chilingirian said.
Two volunteers, Isabella Lubin ’12 and Tzipora Wagner ’13, formed that early version of Peer2Peer; students would email in about their lives and peers would respond within a few hours. The service provided neither anonymity nor instantaneous support, according a Tech article published in 2012.
Lubin and Wagner both contemplated developing an online chat network, but graduated before they could complete the project. Chilingirian read about Peer2Peer in the same Tech article as a freshman, and had past experience with a suicide hotline in Boston that had launched its own chat platform, he said in an interview with The Tech.
By the fall of 2013, Lubin and Wagner had both graduated, and Chilingirian and Halide Bey ’15 expressed interest in working with Waldheter and Fernandes. They wanted to create an online chat service, but were unsure how to do so; when 7 Cups of Tea’s founders approached MIT Mental Health and Counseling last spring about creating an MIT-specific portal, Chilingirian realized that using 7 Cups of Tea’s already-existing technology for real-time anonymous chat was a more feasible option than creating it himself.
“We wanted to improve on Nightline and thus prioritized the service as solely available to the MIT community,” Chilingirian said, which is why users have to log on to Peer2Peer using MIT certificates.
“We know that when students are having difficulty, they first turn to peers and family members,” Waldheter said. “We wanted to increase opportunities for students to reach out to each other by normalizing health-seeking around campus.”
MIT was also very open to partnering with an external organization, Waldheter told The Tech. “While navigating the legal issues was a bit tricky, the administration and especially the Chancellor have been extremely supportive,” he said.
In the future, Waldheter wants to hold Peer2Peer office hours for listeners to discuss responses to crises and ways to educate users about existing mental health resources. The service is currently seeing about four chats per day, but Waldheter hopes that with time, that number will go up.
Peer2Peer’s website is can be found at peer2peer.mit.edu.