Student Support Text Line

Preethi Periyakoil (BS ’18)

Being a student is stressful business. I certainly learned this the hard way first at Caltech and now as an MD/PhD student. I was very lucky to have had an overall amazing four years at Caltech, but I don’t think anyone can walk out of there thinking that it wasn’t one of the most challenging experiences of their lives. My personal experiences led me to seek training to become a crisis counselor so I could help others. During my undergraduate years, I was fortunate not to have suffered any major issues like depression or generalized anxiety disorder, but I definitely experienced bouts of acute stress. I am sure that I would have better dealt with my stresses if I had had a peer counseling service available to me that I could contact discreetly at any hour of the day, because by the time most in-person services were available to me, the stress had often passed on its own. I often also thought about speaking to one of the counseling staff, but I have always felt more comfortable talking to people closer to my own age.

Last year, I was fortunate to serve as a volunteer and provide telephone support and counseling to troubled callers who were contemplating self-harm or suicide. I learned two important lessons about suicide hotlines through this experience:

  1. Anyone can call a suicide hotline, not just people who are, in that moment, about to kill themselves. The biggest myth of suicide hotlines is that the people calling in have to be, at that moment, knife-in-hand and ready to kill themselves. In actuality, such calls, which are known as high-risk calls, are quite rare. Most people calling into suicide hotlines are simply seeking support for something that, in the moment, is making them anxious or upset. Everyone, at some point in their lives, has felt that no one understands what they are going through at that moment, and that is precisely for what services such as SFSP and CTL exist—to make their callers feel heard, validated, and supported. No matter who you are and where you are, you can reach out to a suicide lifeline whenever you need to.
  2. Crisis counselors are not professionals, but many people like that about us. All of my fellow counselors were trained volunteers like myself. We all had day jobs and came from a variety of backgrounds and occupations—waitresses, students, engineers, doctors, designers, etc. We volunteered to provide counseling simply because we wanted to help people. I remember being asked at my volunteer interview, “Why do you think people would rather call us than see a professional therapist?” To me, the answer was simple: people are likely to feel more understood by their peers. Several of callers told us that they had never been able to talk about certain topics with their therapists because of a “barrier” created by the very nature of the professional relationship between them. Rather, they felt an immense amount of comfort in knowing that the people that they were talking to were just regular people like them.

With this knowledge under my belt, I started to think about implementing a confidential text line for college students. To my immense delight, I received overwhelming support from the Caltech Alumni Association, which finally enabled my idea to potentially become a reality.

Over the past two months, I have been working on setting up a nonprofit for my text line. I sought out help from a number of my friends and colleagues and was pleasantly surprised to find how much support and guidance I received. One friend assisted me through the process of applying for a 501(c)(3) with the IRS to become tax exempt. Another friend, who has been running a successful nonprofit for several years, recommended that I immediately write the bylaws and the Articles of Incorporation for the organization, both of which would be required by the IRS. I am also currently working on building the prototype for my text line as I wait for the 501(c)(3) to get approved. It has been challenging to find a HIPAA-compliant, secure online platform that will send and receive text messages. Some of the platforms I have been looking at are Salesforce, Twilio, and Zendesk, which all have various strengths and features, and I am really excited to have a legitimate reason to write code, which I like to do for fun anyways!

Another big step is fund raising to hire staff counselors to train and supervise the student volunteers. I am quickly learning that fundraising is the most difficult part of running a nonprofit. A friend told me that his own nonprofit holds a gala every year to raise funds, which requires a substantial amount of money to plan and hold, but that the return on investment is quite high. For a nonprofit as new as mine, however, he recommended sticking with the basics—using Kickstarter campaigns and GoFundMe, applying for grants from foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institute of Health, and, once I have a working prototype, to maybe even talk to venture capitalists. I have never made a funding pitch in my entire life, so I am both excited and incredibly nervous for this next step in my journey.

Finally, I am completely in awe of the support, kindness, and encouragement I have received from everyone whom I have told about this project. Whether they were friends, professors, mentors, colleagues, incoming classmates, or even parents of friends, everyone has told me that they love the idea and that they are ecstatic that I am pursuing this project. Not only am I humbled and delighted by the kindness of others in my community, but I have also realized how important mental health is to everyone around me. Peer counseling is a much-needed service, especially for college students, and almost everyone that I spoke to told me that the issue that I am trying to help solve is one that is very close to their hearts, and that they would help in any way possible. The support that I have received from everyone is a constant reminder of just how important this project is to me, and how much good it can do if done right. From my colleagues at Salesforce to my friends in medical school, everyone has been nothing but helpful, and I hope to do everyone’s faith justice as I move forward. I am especially motivated to make as much progress as I can in the next couple of months so that I can, if possible, even try to help students as this COVID-19 pandemic affects their lives, both in the short and long term.

And now, the best part—I’ve finally come up with a name for my text line. Try not to cringe, but I think it’s quite perfect! My text line will officially be called “Student Counsel.”

You can stop rolling your eyes now.

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