When Engineering senior Aria Thakore and LSA senior Aastha Dharia roomed together as freshmen at the University of Michigan, they noticed a lot of their peers struggled with the transition to college, turning to their friends or to other students for advice.

“We always wanted to be that ear for them,” Dharia said. “But it was really hard to sometimes have those conversations without having had those experiences.”

As the year went on and more of their friends reached out to them, Thakore and Dharia said it became increasingly difficult to support their friends while also maintaining their own well-being. But it wasn’t until Thakore went home that April that she realized it had become too much to manage on her own.

“I checked my phone and I had nine text messages from nine different people, asking for peer support,” Thakore said. “It was that moment where I was like ‘I’m at home, I’m walking my dog, I want a moment to myself and I can’t manage this anymore.’”

From there, Thakore and Dharia, along with their friends from high school LSA senior Sheily Shah and Public Health senior Swathi Sampath, began working on a nonprofit organization, hEARt Listens, to address this need. 

“It was really weird to have so many people talking about the same problem,” Shah said. “But it was like a never-ending conversation. There wasn’t any solution to it.”

The hEARt Line, which officially launched Feb. 10, was their solution. The text line is open noon to midnight every day of the week, and students can send an anonymous text at any time and get connected with a trained peer supporter within 48 hours. The process is free and open to all University of Michigan Ann Arbor campus students.  

“We were able to figure out that students really like turning to other students first,” Dharia said. “Students also want to be able to help other students, but it was really hard for them to know how to do that while also prioritizing their own well-being.”

Before becoming a peer supporter, students have to go through a semester of training, which consists of weekly sessions focused on different skills such as motivational interviewing, navigating resistance and how to tackle difficult issues such as sexual assault. The founders worked with Social Work professor Lindsay Bornheimer to develop this training program.

According to peer supporter LSA senior Divya Gumudavelly, once students text the helpline, they are connected with a trained peer supporter who feels comfortable navigating the particular topic of conversation.

“(Having peer supporters) eliminates the power structure that can sometimes exist between someone who is seeking help and someone who is trying to offer help,” Gumudavelly said. “You’re talking to somebody who is coming from a place that is, hopefully, somewhat similar to yours because at the end of the day, we’re all the same age and we’re all students.”

To get a better idea of the mental health climate on campus, the four founders spent nearly a year talking to students across campus to assess their needs. They found many students felt current resources were difficult to access, and they were not aware of all of the possible resources available to them. 

“There have been times when it’s been very disheartening,” Sampath said. “It’s kind of hard to keep going through the process hearing about how present a lot of the issues and challenges that we faced or our peers faced really (are) on campus.”

The founders worked with Christine Asidao, associate director of community engagement and outreach for Counseling and Psychological Services, as well as other resources such as the Spectrum Center, Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center and Wolverine Wellness to ensure hEARt Listens is a known and available resource for all students. The founders said the nonprofit also serves as a gateway to other resources on campus. 

“We spend workshops just talking about other resources on campus we can direct (students) to,” Gumudavelly said. “This is another reason I really like hEARt, because it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel.” 

Public Policy senior Hannah Connors is the executive director of Wolverine Support Network, a student organization on campus focused on creating an inclusive community for students. Like hEARt Listens, WSN is a peer-based resource. 

According to Connors, there is a lot of research that speaks to the effectiveness of peer support, especially for young people, who tend to go to their peers first. WSN offers weekly support groups but does not currently have the online component that the hEARt Line provides.

“I think it’s an amazing idea because texting is probably the least intimidating form of communication,” Connors said. “I think it’s really going to benefit students who might feel too intimidated to make a counseling center appointment.”

Though the idea for hEARt Listens started their freshman year, now that the four founders are seniors, they are working on passing the leadership role on to younger students.

LSA freshman Nidhi Tigadi is one of the students stepping up to leadership in hEARt Listens. She trained last semester as a peer supporter, and is now a “trainer-in-training.” 

“I know that not everyone has that one person to turn to when they’re going through a hard time,” Tigadi said. “I thought this would be a cool thing, to be that person for someone else who might need a friend to listen to them.”

With the help of the four founders, Tigadi is learning how to train the next cohort of peer supporters, and will eventually help run the organization after the founders graduate.

“I really like what these girls are doing,” Tigadi said. “I think it’s a very important thing that we have on campus, and I definitely think it is something that should be continued once they do graduate, so I would love to keep it going.”

Describing the project as a constant work in progress, the founders urged students trying out the hEARt Line to provide user feedback that they’ll use to improve the resource.

“One of the things that we’re really proud of is that it’s for students, by students,” Dharia said. “We really want to make that a central piece of what we continue to do as we develop. The more that we hear students’ voices in it, the more that it is going to be a resource that they actually feel like meets the needs that they’re looking for.”

Through the development and launch of hEARt Listens, the founders said they hope to improve the mental health climate by harnessing the types of support systems they observed among peers on campus.

“This campus is filled with people who are so purely dedicated to helping the people around them,” Sampath said. “That’s something that I personally, and all four of us, have worked really hard to not lose sight of, and to be really inspired and encouraged by. Hopefully, hEARt is just another addition to that same mentality that is already here.”

Reporter Iulia Dobrin can be reached at idobrin@umich.edu.

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