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Just a Text Away

Student Text Line Offers Peer Support

By Sala Levin ’10

Tesia Shi ’23 portrait

Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle

Tesia Shi ’23 started the UMD chapter of a a national organization that offers anonymous peer support and counseling to students via text messages.

“Text me if you need anything.” You probably say all it the time without thinking twice, maybe to your roommate or family as you head out to run errands. But what if the need is greater than a dozen eggs or a fresh tube of toothpaste?

Tesia Shi ’23 knows that texting is the primary way college students communicate. So when she arrived on campus and began looking for mental health resources on campus, she decided to start one that filled a new niche: a text-based, non-crisis mental health hotline.

UMD’s chapter of Lean on Me, a national organization founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology students after a number of suicides on campus, offers anonymous peer support through text messages. Launched last semester, the student group fields texts on academic burnout, roommate troubles, loneliness and a range of other emotional stressors. 

Tesia Shi ’23 headshot“A lot of times seeking mental health support can feel intimidating to people, because they feel, ‘Oh my issues aren’t severe enough, I don’t want to be taking up someone else’s space who really needs it,’” said Shi, a psychology and biological sciences double major. “We hope that by being really low-barrier and approachable, that people who use us will then feel more comfortable using other mental health resources down the line.”

Nationally, Lean on Me text lines are in operation at 10 campuses. A texter will write in describing their situation and quickly be matched with a volunteer. The two chat for as long as the texter likes; if the same texter writes in again, they’re matched with a new volunteer who won’t see what’s been written before. 

About 30 volunteers work the text line, offering support, compassion and a sympathetic ear to fellow Terps. Each volunteer went through a Lean on Me training program, learning to be an active listener and problem-solve collaboratively while working through real-life scenarios.  

Justine Morris ’22 headshot“I learned that a couple things I do say to friends sometimes aren’t things you should say,” said Justine Morris ’22, a theatre major and Lean on Me volunteer. For instance, talking about going through a similar situation, as Morris sometimes used to do to relate, can feel to a friend like shifting attention toward yourself, she learned. 

The volunteers are not trained to handle suicidal thoughts or other symptoms of severe mental illness. If those kinds of texts come in, the person can be directly transferred to the hotline of Lean on Me’s anti-suicide partner organization, the Samaritans, or redirected toward the Counseling Center’s 24-hour crisis hotline.

As for nerves about saying the wrong thing or being able to actually help someone in need, Shi put it plainly: “We were terrified,” she said. “Since this is the first time something like this has been launched that we know of here, we wanted to really strike the right impression.” So far, the volunteers have handled about 200 conversations.

Morris still has occasional nerves, but feels that her training has given her a solid foundation. The anonymity of the messaging also puts both parties more at ease, she said. “You don’t think about it as a person you’re talking to; it feels like an entity that isn’t there to judge you,” Morris said. 

For Morris, the group has been a place not just to offer encouragement to others, but to find some herself.

“I’ve honestly had a lot of fun joining it, more than I expected to,” she said. “As much as we support other people, we also support each other, which I think is really, really cool.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.