It’s the start of the semester and you are struggling in a computer science class. It’s reading period and you are busy writing papers before Dean’s Date. It’s Lawnparties, but you have been feeling lonely lately and not in the mood for fun.
Most college students experience times of stress or anxiety, although there are certain aspects of life at Princeton that only other Princeton students really understand. Talking with another student who relates to how you are feeling can be a big help. And this is where the Princeton Peer Nightline comes in.
The nightline is an anonymous peer listening service created and run by undergraduates. It is among a spectrum of mental health resources on campus that support students, such as Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) at University Health Services.
The peer service is open during the academic year on Tuesday and Friday nights. Students can call 609-258-0279 or use an online chat service to speak anonymously with a volunteer.
The nightline does not offer professional counseling. Rather, it provides supportive listening to other students who “wish to share a problem, are in need of information, or just want to talk about whatever is on their mind.”
“Whether it’s relationships, academic stress, a fight with a friend or a parent, depression, eating disorders, roommate troubles, or you just had a really bad day, we’re here to listen and make sure that no student has to face their problems alone,” said senior Shana Salomon.
Salomon co-founded the nightline last year with Class of 2018 members Julie Newman and Christin Park. They met by working on the Undergraduate Student Government’s Mental Health Initiative. Salomon and Newman also volunteered at CONTACT of Mercer County, a crisis and suicide hotline. Their idea was to apply the CONTACT model to create a Princeton hotline for non-emergency situations.
“We wanted a practical way to help students dealing with stress,” Newman said, adding they also were inspired by peer nightlines at other Ivy League universities. “When you are at a school like Princeton there often is this myth of effortless perfection. You want to seem like everything is OK and don't want to admit things can be hard or stressful.”
The students consulted with University administrators, including representatives from CPS, the Office of the Vice President for Campus Life, the Pace Center for Civic Engagement and the residential colleges, to develop the peer nightline.
“The co-founders sought professional advice in developing the nightline, but this really is a student-led initiative. It is not a subsidiary of health services,” said CPS Director Calvin Chin.
The peer line complements — but does not replace — other resources that help students such as CPS, residential college deans and directors of student life, and the Department of Public Safety.
“We are not a counseling service; we are compassionate listeners,” Newman said. “Our volunteers don’t solve a person’s problem or give a diagnosis; they are there to listen and support.”
Park added: “The University has really great counseling services, but maybe people feel like their problems are not big enough to go to CPS, so they will contact us instead. Maybe someone just wants to vent about an argument with a friend or get information about mental health resources without having a face-to-face conversation.”
Salomon said volunteers often refer students to other offices.
“A first-year student struggling in a class may not know about tutoring available at the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. Or someone who believes they’ve been sexually harassed could be referred to the Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education (SHARE) office,” she said.
Nightline volunteers must complete 40 hours of hotline training and an apprenticeship with CONTACT, or received equivalent professional training at an accredited hotline service. Volunteers also have an additional eight hours of Princeton-specific training.
“All of our volunteers are trained in how to deal with rash or dangerous behavior. How to assess risk. How to talk a person through a situation and make sure they are being safe,” Salomon said.
Chin said the peer nightline offers a new way for students to access mental health care on campus.
“Some students may think there is a stigma with using mental health services,” Chin said. “So an anonymous conversation can be a great first step to reducing that stigma and overcoming barriers to seeking professional help.”
Darleny Cepin, director of student life in Mathey College, said the nightline also is helpful for a student who might prefer to speak to someone of the same age.
“You are talking with a peer who can fully relate to the student experience,” said Cepin, who advises nightline. “You don’t have to worry about the power dynamic of talking to your DSL or your dean.”
She added, “The nightline is a beautiful way that Princeton students are showing kindness and compassion to their peers.”
Newman, Park and Salomon, the nightline co-founders, said they have been heartened by the experience as much as the students who contact them seeking help.
“A lot of the best calls or chats end with someone saying ‘this really helped’ or ‘I’m really glad you were here tonight,’” Newman said. “There are times when people share really sad experiences, but it also can be very empowering and hopeful to hear someone say that you helped them feel better and now they are ready to tackle whatever issue was worrying them.”