NU Listens launches peer listening service for mental health support

Christine Farolan, Reporter

NU Listens will begin offering a pilot version of its peer listening service by phone open to all Northwestern students beginning Friday night. 

After a long process of training the peer listeners and working with the administration, the team of undergraduates is ready to introduce a preliminary version of its program. Students can call the group’s number every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening from 8:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. This time was chosen due a higher likelihood of crises occurring. 

Weinberg seniors Jennifer Siedjak and Leah Grodinsky serve as the organization’s co-directors. Siedjak explained that the service aims to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness by allowing students to speak to one of two peer listeners on duty about any concerns.

“That’s the direction we need, having it be normal to reach out for help,” Siedjak said.

To reach this point, the team of 11 listeners began its planning stages during Fall Quarter. Starting in January of 2014, they underwent a 10-week training seminar led by Counseling and Psychological Services to better understand a variety of topics concerning college students. These included LGBTQ issues, eating disorders, depression, drugs and alcohol and sexual health.

Being able to apply this knowledge in a conversation and refer students to proper resources was a key part of the listeners’ training. The listeners were not trained to give advice or act as counselors. Rather, they use a technique called active listening, which involves certain strategies to help callers feel more at ease.

“There are many ways: validating the person’s feelings, normalizing their experience, asking clarifying questions,” Siedjak said. “Just overall showing that you’re engaged and that you care.”

John Dunkle, executive director of CAPS, has served as an adviser for the students throughout the entire process of planning, training and organizing. By ensuring that everything was conducted responsibly under his professional oversight, NU Listens was able to begin creating the peer listening service. He said he and all the CAPS psychologists are excited to see its kickoff.

“I’ve worked very closely with these listeners and the exec board and they’ve been great,” Dunkle said.

Siedjak said the group’s work began during Spring Quarter of the 2010-11 academic school year. 

“Back when I was a freshman, mental health was not as big a part of the dialogue as it is now,” Siedjak said. “It’s only recently, I feel, become a hot button issue.”

NU has since seen several mental health initiatives including the Essential NU talk on mental health added to the Wildcat Welcome program and related groups like NU Active Minds. The community committed to changing the way campus handles mental illness has been growing stronger, she said.

Communication freshman Casey Doherty has used her role as part of NU Listens’ public relations committee to further this movement of support. She said the group’s Facebook page posts “feel-good information” to increase awareness of the service and encourage people to use it themselves or refer it to their friends.

“Obviously we’re doing it because we see a void in what’s available to students and we want to be able to give them that network to reach out to,” Doherty said.

In the future, Siedjak said she would like to see the program expand to include more hours of operation and other modes of communication, such as speaking in person or over instant message. This will depend on available resources and the extent to which the service is utilized. During the first month of the pilot program, CAPS will observe the operation to decide what the next steps will be for the program. Siedjak said she is confident in the empathy of the peer listeners.

“They’ve dedicated countless hours to making this service happen and they genuinely care,” Siedjak said. “So I think that’s the most important thing right there — it’s a group of great people who really want to help the community.”

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Twitter: @crfarolan

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the academic year NU Listens began. The Daily regrets the error.