Features, On-Campus Profiles, Profiles

Through Anonymous Conversations, Lean on Me Supports Students

It was a long day. You got a subpar grade on your finite exam, and your roommate loudly took a 90-minute phone call when you really just needed to take a nap. 

Or maybe it was a rainy day, and bad weather always drags down your mood. Maybe you just do not feel great and want to talk to someone, but no one will listen.

Do not worry—Lean on Me has your back. 

The Boston College chapter of the national organization Lean on Me allows students to anonymously chat with trained student supporters. Without spending a dime, students can text the Lean on Me hotline number with any issue not requiring immediate crisis assistance and receive a response in as fast as a few minutes.

“It’s just a peer-to-peer, non-crisis hotline for students on our campus,” Julia Pintar, head of training for the BC chapter and MCAS ’24 said. 

Composed of 22 members, the Lean on Me team is dedicated to prioritizing students’ confidentiality and helping them grapple with everyday mental health issues, according to Ainsley Kohler, BC’s chapter coordinator and MCAS ’23. 

“It’s supposed to be just a conversation kind of between friends, even if it’s anonymous and you don’t know each other,” Kohler said.

Since 2019, the chapter has led over 400 conversations with BC students.

When someone texts the hotline number, the Lean on Me algorithm reconfigures any user’s number to a random word code, ensuring total anonymity. 

Anna Laytham, the head supporter of BC’s Lean on Me chapter and CSON ’24, said that every supporter receives a user’s introductory message, and then one supporter will pick up the conversation and continue it privately. If someone begins a conversation but eventually needs to put their phone away for class or another commitment, they must communicate that with the user, she said.

“Everyone just responds when they have time,” Laytham said. “We know that everyone, all the supporters, have really busy schedules, so it’s totally fine if they pick up a conversation and then they have to, like, go do something.” 

The user then has the option to either wait a couple of hours until their original supporter is available again or transfer to a different supporter, Laytham said. 

While the number remains completely anonymous and confidential, Laytham said the organization does keep track of each user’s past conversation data to ensure they are receiving satisfactory support. 

As head of training, Pintar leads monthly meetings called “refreshers” and organizes presentations to remind supporters how to handle different types of discussions. Common conversation topics include relationship issues, academic or career struggles, general stress and loneliness, and issues relating to COVID-19 and family, she said. 

“I think that sometimes people text in because they feel like they’ve brought up an issue to their friends or their family a bunch and they feel like they’re a burden,” Kohler said. “Or, they don’t want to tell the people around them because they just don’t want to, like, add to their plates.”

To tackle these wide varieties of conversation topics, Kohler said the Lean on Me executive board has focused on gathering a diverse group of supporters with different backgrounds and perspectives. 

“We try to, as much as we can, diversify the population just in case a user does want to speak to someone that has a similar identity to them,” Kohler said.

According to Laytham, these supporters aim to simply listen rather than intervene. 

“It’s a lot more like, question and listening than advice-oriented, and that’s something we’re really trained on—to try to not give advice or not give too many suggestions, and just really be there to talk about people’s feelings,” she said. “When you support people, a lot of the time you want to just give advice, but it’s so much harder to actually listen.”

Kohler echoed this sentiment and said that most people who text Lean on Me often just want their problems to be heard, not solved.

“Not every user wants advice,” she said. “They just want to tell you what’s going on. Like, if you came to someone for support, and then they immediately start trying to give you advice, it can feel like they’re turning you away—like, ‘Oh, just go do that.’”

To ensure that the conversations are running smoothly, Lean on Me has a built-in feedback system where both the user and the supporter can rate the conversation after its conclusion. 

As head supporter, Laytham said she occasionally checks the ratings to examine what the supporters are excelling at and where they can improve. 

“People can write comments about how they felt like the conversation went, and so we can just see to make sure that everything’s going okay,” she said.

Both Kohler and Pintar emphasized that supporters are not professionals and thus are not equipped to engage in any crisis conversations. 

“It is a non-crisis text line, but we do train them on how to deal with crisis situations, but always with the intent that like, if a crisis situation happens—like suicidal intent or ideation—you transfer them onto Samaritans, which is a suicide hotline,” Pintar said.

All levels of mental health care have become even more crucial in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kohler said.

“Right off the bat, we’re not ever going to be a replacement for counseling or therapy, nor are our supporters professionals,” Kohler said. “There’s a lot of value in seeking clinical care, and I think people should, but I think that … there’s a big gap between like, ‘Okay, I’m doing really well mentally, I have my own support system in place,’ and ‘I need to seek professional help.’”

Lean on Me thus serves as a great median for people who just want to chat with an impartial third party, but who are not interested in therapy, Kohler said. 

There are also advantages of speaking to a fellow BC student about these smaller, yet still crucial, issues, Kohler said.

“If you’re having problems on campus, chances are they know how the extracurricular system works and they know it’s difficult, like they know how academics work,” Kohler said. “It just helps to create that more immediate environment of familiarity and just fosters more support without the person having to constantly explain themselves.”

When Kohler first joined Lean on Me during her freshman year at BC, she saw it as an opportunity to both improve her own mental health and help others.

“I saw this flier, like on the staircase down from Mac, and it was like, ‘Are you interested in supporting your peers?’” she said. “And I was like, ‘One, yes. But also, I feel like I need support, because it’s hard to be a freshman.’”

Pintar and Laytham also noted the mental and emotional impact of being a Lean on Me member.

“I would say it affects my emotions,” Laytham said. “I don’t know if I would say it affects my mental health. I think, initially, it was more heavy. But then, it didn’t get less heavy or less impactful, I just think I figured out how to, like, deal with hearing these stories and really care for myself.”

Pintar added that engaging in these conversations with BC students has helped to put her own struggles into perspective.

“It’s kind of eye-opening,” Pintar said. “I think it paints, like, a more real picture. It makes me feel less individualistic because it’s so easy to like, get involved with my problems … it almost makes my problems seem very normal.”

Kohler, Pintar, and Laytham all encourage students who are struggling with mental health to text the hotline or seek help in general.

“I’m a big fan of just, like, doing it,” Pintar said. “I think the only way to really grow is getting yourself out of your comfort zone.” 

The typical fear of judgment is much less grave when there is not a face attached to the conversation, Pintar said. To any student who is hesitating to reach out, Kohler and Laytham stressed that confidentiality is the supporters’ top priority. 

“You will be in a safe space, with the e-board team and even the other supporters,” Laytham said. “That’s what we really try to create—a safe space.”

February 19, 2023