The University of Lethbridge now offers an online peer support initiative aimed at helping students deal with stress. 7 Cups of Tea, an online and mobile emotional-support service, allows students to anonymously chat with trained “listeners” 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Users can visit the 7 Cups website or download the app on their smartphone and, within seconds, exchange messages through a secure network with trained listeners, including student peers, registered psychologists and mental-health professionals. The company currently boasts more than 120,000 listeners providing support to some 800,000 users every month. The service is available in 140 languages with listeners in 180 countries, and is used at more than 100 colleges and universities globally. However, U of Lethbridge counselling services manager Mark Slomp said his institution is the first in Canada to partner with the service.
Dr. Slomp met the founder of 7 Cups, psychologist Glen Moriarty, at the annual Depression on College Campuses conference at the University of Michigan in 2015. He attended a presentation by Dr. Moriarty about 7 Cups, which he had started to roll out in 2013.
“It really intrigued me because I could immediately see its value on a university campus,” said Dr. Slomp. “At our institution we have struggled to get a traditional peer support program off the ground. A chat-based, anonymous program seemed like the solution to me,” he said. “[W]e need to provide services that match with how they [students] want to receive information and services.”
Dr. Slomp worked with 7 Cups to create a customized premium site for the university, which, in addition to the peer support chat service, offers data tracking and more than 300 mental-health articles, videos and exercises. The university pays a fee for the service but it’s free for students to use.
The exercises, or “personal growth paths,” help users gain skills and knowledge on specific issues of concern to them, like social anxiety, depression, or loneliness. For Dr. Slomp, this is another way students can access support if they are struggling, especially at the end of the semester, which can be particularly tough on students.
Dr. Slomp said 20 percent of U of Lethbridge students in the past year accessed counselling services, but more than 35 percent indicated they could have benefited from counselling but did not reach out.
Dr. Moriarty asserts that speed and anonymity are key to what makes 7 Cups of Tea an effective emotional support program. “The way people have traditionally had to seek help, you first have to deal with insurance, find a therapist, make and wait for an appointment, meet with the therapist; there are so many steps. Now with anonymous messaging, the lower you make the threshold to seeking help the more people can do it,” he said.
On the flip side, as the stigma around mental health issues decreases, universities have had difficulty keeping up with demand for mental health and wellness services. “That’s why we have to empower the student body to support one another, transforming campuses into a compassionate system and a channel to reach more people,” said Dr. Moriarty.
Many of the service’s “active listeners” started out as 7 Cups of Tea users. When you help someone through a tough time, said Dr. Moriarty, “you get a ‘helper’s high.’ When you care for someone, it helps you too.” He added that the majority of people using the program are not necessarily struggling with significant disorders but may be stressed or going through a difficult situation and just want someone to talk to.
“One thing that has become clear is that students are keenly interested in helping their peers,” said Dr. Slomp. “I have come to see that providing emotional support cannot be the sole responsibility of our department. Everyone on our campus has to be invested in being part of providing a compassionate, caring community.”