Lean on Me: New Hotline Gives Struggling Students Someone to Talk to

Illustration by Alyssa Long | Staff Illustrator

Annie Huang
Staff Writer

Last Monday, April 29, UCSB opened its own chapter of Lean On Me, a national nonprofit organization that provides anonymous student-to-student text-based peer support. Originally founded by students at MIT, the hotline facilitates convenient and accessible peer conversations in which callers can speak to another student for emotional support.

The Lean On Me hotline connects students in need of support with available peer supporters via texting. Students are matched with a peer supporter generally within a few minutes of sending the request, depending on the availability of volunteers. According to the Lean On Me website, students can text about nearly anything of their choice, ranging from casual conversations to more serious topics.

The UCSB chapter of Lean On Me was opened by Rushali Kothari, a third-year biological sciences major who has been working with her team on the peer support hotline since fall quarter. When asked about the first day of Lean On Me’s public release, Kothari mentioned how “people talked to [Lean On Me] about relationships, not fitting in at UCSB, [and] stress from midterms.”

Supporting Kothari’s observation, a 2018 annual report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) found that academic performance (25.2 percent), relationship problems (24.2 percent), and adjustment to a new environment (14.0 percent) were among 15 of the top 54 reported concerns of college students. Kothari hopes that Lean On Me can be “a more accessible way of just getting something off your chest before it turns into something larger.”

In a 2015 analysis, the Student Mental Health Committee Report to the Regents documented a 54 percent increase in the utilization of counseling services in UC schools from 2006 and 2015. However, the UC Mental Health Guidebook states the number of students visiting mental and psychological services on campus may actually be an underestimate of how many students actually need counseling, as “students may choose not to seek counseling at our centers because of limited staffing and increasingly lengthy non-crisis wait lists.”

According to Dr. Janet Osimo, the Assistant Clinical Director of UCSB’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), 13 percent to 16 percent of the campus utilizes CAPS services.

If a student’s situation is not considered urgent, mental health services on campus such as CAPS and CARE can have wait times up to two months before a student can have their appointment. Lean On Me hopes to help fill that gap, letting students instantly talk to a peer about problems that don’t necessarily require professional counseling.

While students seeking professional support in mental health issues are welcome to use Lean On Me for peer support get started or for additional help, it is not a replacement for CAPS. According to Kothari, “If it’s serious, then we can refer and help people […] find help. [But] because we’re not licensed mental health professionals … we’re not trained in that way.”

“We believe that emotional support should be provided for students at all times to ensure that they are taken care of and helped accordingly,” stated Natalie Herriott, Head of Supporter Training at UCSB’s Lean On Me and first year language, culture, and society major.

“Because [our volunteers are] students it can sometimes be easier [to speak to us] because we’ve been there in a lot of situations [and] might be able to relate more closely than an adult might be able to,” stated Kothari.

While the hotline is open 24 hours, there may be longer wait times during late nights and early mornings due to the fact that peer supporters are also students with their own schedules.

When asked about their thoughts on Lean On Me, Dr. Osimo stated, “We are interested in learning more about their training process and their support services. In the meantime, we encourage students to reach out to campus resources including our own CAPS and MHP services.”

In addition to its standard hours CAPS also has a 24/7 hotline students can call in case of emergencies.

As mental issues become more prevalent across colleges, other universities such as the University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and Boston College have adopted Lean On Me into their communities in the last two years. UCSB’s chapter of Lean On Me will be the first in the University of California system.