Lucas Holter

One evening this past year, Snigdha Nandipati ’20 felt overwhelmed by school-related issues and did not know where to turn. She felt uncomfortable reaching out to Yale friends, afraid that their perception of her would change. Instead, she picked up her phone and texted “CONNECT” to 741741. A minute later, she received a response from a trained crisis counselor with Crisis Text Line, a national nonprofit organization that provides a free, 24/7 crisis text line.

Instead of bombarding her with questions, the counselor trained in crisis management validated what she was feeling with text responses like “Yeah, that’s understandable why you’d feel that way” and “That makes sense.”

“It felt super informal,” Nandipati reflected. “Like I was venting to a friend, but without having to worry about my friendship with them.”

Crisis Text Line was launched in 2013 by DoSomething.org, a nonprofit organization mobilizing young people to initiate social change in over 130 countries. According to its website, Crisis Text Line has processed more than 79 million messages to date. While Crisis Text Line is currently operated independently from the University, two Yale students — Nandipati and Sarah Wie ’20 — are working to make the text hotline more readily available to Yale students, both as a volunteer opportunity and, more importantly, as a mental health resource.

The duo is working to increase the service’s visibility on campus, as well as gather a group of students who are interested in becoming crisis counselors for Crisis Text Line. By applying to be a registered undergraduate club, called “Crisis Text Line at Yale — A Student Partnership,” they received $100, which they have used to fund publicity events. So far, the group has hosted two study breaks with snacks and laptops displaying the Crisis Text Line’s online platform. They are currently applying to become affiliated with Dwight Hall so they can receive funding as a volunteer organization.

Nandipati, who recently stepped down as co-president, and Wie became proactive in promoting the text hotline on campus because they wanted to offer another resource to meet the rising demand for mental health resources on college campuses.

At Yale, many students have reported extremely long wait times when attempting to schedule an initial evaluation and follow-up meeting with a Yale Health therapist. Yale’s website states that an evaluation will be scheduled “within two to four weekdays” of a request. Noah Parnes ’21, for one, waited almost two weeks after he called Yale Health earlier this past October.

Furthermore, when students are able to access counseling through Yale Health, many have been disappointed by their experience. A survey published by the Yale Daily News last March showed that one-third of undergraduates who sought mental health services reported feeling “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with their experience, and one-third were neutral. Although four new clinicians began working at Mental Health & Counseling this past semester — bringing the number of employees to 31, students still reported frustration with the system’s lack of expediency.

Multiple representatives from the Yale Mental Health & Counseling directed the News’ inquiries to the Office of Public Affairs & Communications. An OPAC spokesperson did not respond to request for comment.

The increase in demand for counseling has risen dramatically in the past decade. A national survey conducted by the American Psychological Association reported a 44 percent increase in college students with severe psychological problems from 2013 to 2014. According to the Yale Mental Health & Counseling website, approximately half of Yale undergraduates have obtained mental health counseling from Yale Health at some point.

Kimberly Goff-Crews, the secretary and vice president for student life at Yale, attributed this increase in demand to an increased openness among students to discuss mental health. When she was a student at Yale 36 years ago, students did not discuss mental health services because of the stigma of mental health disorders. But in her current position, which she has held since 2012, Goff-Crews has observed that “students feel more comfortable talking about mental health services.”

Peer-counseling programs have also become fairly common on college campuses nationwide. At Yale, Walden Peer Counseling is the only University-sponsored peer-counseling service available to undergraduates. Walden provides a confidential phone hotline from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. and nightly walk-in peer counseling staffed by Yale undergraduates from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Although Walden advertises itself as an anonymous service, Wie said that its face-to-face, peer-based framework makes this goal difficult.

“We all know someone else through one degree or another,” she explained, noting that potential exposure may prevent students from seeking help.

Walden Peer Counseling declined to comment.

While anecdotally, students may feel an ease in receiving support through text, few studies have tested the effectiveness of peer counseling, especially compared to professional counseling. A 1984 study co-authored by University President Peter Salovey found “a dearth of systematic research evaluating the effectiveness … or the appropriateness of various peer counselor training programs.”

Even if the data did support the effectiveness of peer counseling, there is no telling that 30 hours of Crisis Text Line’s online training can adequately prepare undergraduates to take on challenging mental health cases.

Alyssa Amick ’19 has been volunteering for Crisis Text Line for a year and a half, and felt overwhelmed during her first few shifts.

“While I felt underprepared going into it, I was definitely not,” she said. “At the end of the day, what I’ve found is just being there to listen and show someone that you care can go a really long way.”

Amick added that she felt supported by trained mental health professionals employed by Crisis Text Line, who are virtually available to guide counselors.

With potentially dangerous cases, counselors are instructed to hand the situation off to professionals. Nandipati described a particularly difficult experience: The person using the text hotline said “im just gonna take a bunch of pills,” and a moment later, “im actually taking them right now.”

Nandipati had received trained for this type of situation. If a texter seems in danger or dangerous, counselors are taught to first determine whether the texter has an intention, a plan, a means and a time frame for harm to occur. This case met all four criteria, so Nandipati reported the conversation to her supervisor, who tracked the texter’s location and notified emergency services.

“It was really difficult because it happened so suddenly,” she reflected. “You want to make sure they’re okay, but you never know.”

A texting platform provides many benefits that other peer-counseling platforms cannot, including anonymity, ease and 24/7 accessibility. Using the service requires little commitment — it is meant to function as a one-time-use resource.

“You can text from wherever you want, even your dorm room or the bathroom,” Nandipati added.

This accessibility lowers the stakes and makes the resource less intimidating, Nandipati said. Texting also offers anonymity to those in need of help. The system does not retain identifying information except for the location of the number, which is used only in emergencies.

Still, the three text hotline volunteers interviewed by the News said that the hotline does not offer a long-term solution to mental health disorders.

“It’s not a Band-Aid solution so much as treating an immediate burn,” Wie described, “so people texting in can seek more suitable and appropriate treatment” after using the hotline.

However, some people do become dependent on the hotline, as is the case with many technology-based resources. Nandipati has noticed a handful of texters who have used the resource many times — the chat window shows previous dates when the texter has used the hotline.

Kathryn Khalvati, a Yale undergraduate who has taken three semesters off for mental health reasons, stressed that a service like the Text Line does not replace long-term professional help.

“It’s very extreme, and I don’t think all of Yale’s undergraduate energy should go towards that because it’s anonymous, it’s one time, that’s still not human interaction,” Khalvati said. “I’m not saying this shouldn’t exist, I’m just saying data and Band-Aids are not going to help us achieve the change we need.”

Yale Mental Health & Counseling is located at 55 Lock St.

Kira Sze | kira.sze@yale.edu