Lean on Me to offer anonymous venue for student support
HackMIT project launches at MIT, is expected to reduce ‘activation energy’ for those seeking support
Andy Trattner ’17 and a team of students launched a mental health platform, Lean On Me, Tuesday. Students will be able to use the platform by texting a hotline to receive support from peers. The team includes Trattner as CEO, COO Linda Jing ’17, CTO Amin Manna ’17, and Board Member and MIT alumnus Nikhil Buduma ’15.
The Lean On Me algorithm matches users with volunteer peer supporters who can relate to students’ challenges, according to the service’s website. Once matched, the student volunteers chat privately with students who text the service at 646-798-4121.
There are currently 16 active peer supporters with 30 more students currently going through the application process. Peer supporters are vetted by a three-part application, which includes an online survey, a supporter development workshop that teaches supporters how to act in various situations, and a supporter oath. The onboarding process was created by Lean On Me in collaboration with many MIT offices, such as Violence Prevention and Response, Community Development and Substance Abuse, Conflict Management, the Student Citizenship office, the Undergraduate Association Wellness Chairs, Peer to Peer, and Peer Ears.
Because Peer Supporters are students, they are not mandatory reporters, and all conversations are completely anonymous. Peer supporters don’t even see a user’s phone number, so they cannot report incidents to authorities or provide emergency assistance. Lean On Me asks users, if emergency help is needed, to “find it elsewhere.”
Lean On Me began as a HackMIT project in 2015. Buduma, who grew up in the Bay Area, had competed in previous hackathons, and wanted to create something with more personal meaning for the last hackathon before he graduated from MIT. He had experience with close friends struggling from depression, and partnered with Jing. Trattner, also interested in starting a mental health initiative at MIT that encouraged conversation, soon reached out to Buduma and Jing.
Trattner sent out a survey to the MIT community about mental health, and of the 170 respondents, 88 said that if faced with stress, they would “just deal with it” themselves.
“The major misleading piece of the puzzle is, more often than not, people aren’t going label themselves as ‘needing help,’” Buduma said. “If someone’s feeling stressed, the activation energy for getting help should be zero. And what’s more convenient than texting a friend?”
After winning a top-10 prize at HackMIT last fall, the Lean On Me team met Josh Weaver ’00, an MIT alumnus and former GRT who now works at Google. Weaver was a HackMIT judge and wanted to support Lean On Me after seeing it at the hackathon. He agreed to advise them as they moved from their prototype to a more finalized platform. Over IAP, the team brought in Manna to take over the software Buduma had developed, and they together added new functionality that enabled users to flag inappropriate conversations and switch Peer Supporters if necessary.
Lean On Me is among other student-led mental health initiative on campus. Another is sophomore Isabel Lloyd’s “Tell Me About Your Day” (TMAYD) campaign.
“[Lean On Me is] another way to easily find counsel and support. TMAYD serves to show everyone that there are people all around that care. Lean On Me gives people an actual platform for support when they reach out,” Lloyd said.
Buduma explained that Lean On Me hopes to become an official nonprofit and expand to the entire MIT community over the next semester. Then, it will spread to other schools.
“We’ve already gotten interest from many schools, including Berkeley, Stanford, UC Irvine, Cornell, and even the ROTC military program,” Jing said.
“What we offer is something that is a little different from Student Support Services or Mental Health in that it’s run by other students and it’s completely anonymous. It’s personalized, convenient, safe, and secure. We bridge the gap between people who don’t want to talk to MIT and people who just want to talk to their friends.”