Everyone has off days. For some, it’s stress from finals or a bad mood from gloomy weather. For others, it’s a little more serious. No matter what’s got you down, a new student group called NU Listens has your back. Northwestern’s new peer listening organization is set to be up and running by the spring, offering students a place to come in and just vent.
Weinberg junior and NU Listens founder and director Miriam Mogilevsky says mental health is a “nonissue” at Northwestern. She says students have a hard time opening up about what’s ailing them — some may be concerned about the stigma attached to mental illness, she guesses — and she wanted to help get students talking.
After some research, she found at least 16 of the U.S. News and World Reporttop 20 schools in the country provided a kind of peer listening support service to their students, and Northwestern wasn’t one of them. Last spring, Mogilevsky started planning NU Listens, envisioning a place where any student can turn for unconditional support. “[Northwestern] is one of those places where it’s super tough in many ways and a lot of people, especially as freshmen, feel lost,” she says. “This is going to be the one place where you always know that people care and are ready to listen to you.”
The group’s name is an acronym: “Listens” stands for Lending Immediate Support To Every Northwestern Student. The goal of the group isn’t to provide therapy or “fix” anyone, Mogilevsky says, but to provide a safe space where Northwestern students can openly discuss their problems with a peer who’s ready to listen. Listeners will be trained to recognize if a student needs professional help and will be able to recommend therapists and psychiatrists in the area.
“Many people are very, very hesitant about going and talking to an adult or a professional,” Mogilevsky says. “Not only are we there for people who don’t really need medical attention, but we’re also there as a stepping stone for those who do.”
Modeled after peer listening programs at Harvard and other top universities, NU Listens will train about 30 peer listeners in basic psychology, empathetic listening, diversity sensitivity and other skills. Listeners will also sign a confidentiality oath. Two peer listeners will be available every night to listen to students who come in to talk. Listeners’ bios and shifts will be posted online ahead of time so students can arrange to speak with a particular listener or keep in touch with someone to whom they felt a strong connection. “If someone is a person of color or they’re a member of the LGBT community and they want to talk to someone who also belongs to those communities, we want that to be an option,” Mogilevsky says.
Barrett Leider, a transfer student from Colorado College, says he had a hard time connecting with the student body at his previous school. He says NU Listens would be a meaningful way for him to get involved on campus. “It seems almost like a no-brainer for a college to have this sort of service to offer the students,” the Communication sophomore says. “It’s valuable to have someone trustworthy to talk to.”
Freshmen especially may find peace of mind through an organization like NU Listens, according to Weinberg freshman Meredith Goodman. She knew she wanted to be involved in peer counseling before she came to college, and she learned about NU Listens through a Google search before she got to Northwestern. Students at Northwestern have been there for her as she adjusts to college life, she says, and now she wants to give back as a peer listener. “I have had countless students help me with all the problems that arose during band camp and orientation,” Goodman writes in an email. “NU Listens is just another way in which Northwestern students support each other.”
Mogilevsky said she knows students may not come pouring in right away; opening up to anyone is intimidating, and it will take some time for students to get used to NU Listens. But more than half of Northwestern students use CAPS, according to figures they provided. She says she anticipates a similar response to NU Listens, even if it takes a little while.
“We’ll probably have some nights where we’re sitting there doing homework and playing Bananagrams because no one comes in, but I think that’s going to change,” she says.
When NU Listens finally takes off, Mogilevsky hopes it will thrive long after the founding members’ graduations. To open up the conversation about mental health at Northwestern, all students have to do is start talking — and listening.