It’s a little past 2 a.m. on an early Saturday morning at an undisclosed location in College Station. While their peers are either asleep or out on the town, two student volunteers lounge on a couch, scrolling aimlessly through Netflix menus with coffee mugs cradled in their laps. Their shift has been quiet so far, but they keep the volume down and their ears open for the sound that will send one of them into action.
Just after they’ve settled on a drama, they hear a ringing from a room down the hall. One of the students springs up, speed-walks toward the phone, takes a quick breath and picks up the handset. “Texas A&M HelpLine,” she says, “this is [name], who am I speaking with?” The caller on the other end of the line answers, stammering a bit. He says he’s been staring at his phone screen for the last half-hour, scrounging up the courage to dial the HelpLine’s number, 979-845-2700.
After some gentle prodding as to why he called, he opens up about the weight he’s carried for the last few weeks, months and years. He talks about how the empty ache of depression has gotten consistently and inexplicably worse, but he doesn’t know who to go to without making his friends and family worried. Both students know that none of the caller’s problems will dissolve overnight; but for now, it’s enough to simply be heard. So as the caller talks and talks, the HelpLine volunteer simply listens and listens.
An Invisible Crisis
In a study conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 25 percent of college students surveyed reported having a diagnosable mental illness. Forty percent of students with diagnosable illnesses reported not seeking help, their most prominent reason being fear of stigma around seeking mental health care. Of those studied, 7 percent reported having “seriously considered suicide” during the past year. Suicide is the second most common cause of death on American college campuses.
Even at an institution as friendly as Texas A&M University, the college experience for some can be rife with mental health pitfalls. Students who relied on their families for emotional support are left to sort out their stresses hundreds of miles away from home. Former high-achieving students buckle under the weight of their academic expectations. Success is often a grind, failure is hard-felt and in a campus with almost 60,000 students, it’s easy to feel lost in the crowd.
HelpLine is an after-hours mental health service offered by Texas A&M Counseling & Psychological Services (formerly known as Student Counseling Service) that provides support, information, crisis intervention and referrals to Texas A&M students and those concerned about students. When school is in session, undergraduate, graduate and former student volunteers answer calls from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. on weekdays and 24 hours a day on weekends. Each student volunteer undergoes a rigorous 55-hour training period before they answer their first call.
Volunteers like Alexandra McCammon ’15 ’16 emphasize that, while they are trained to support students experiencing suicidal ideation, HelpLine is not exclusively a suicide hotline.
“A majority of our calls have a suicidal component to them, so we’re definitely prepared to take those calls,” McCammon said. “But we’ll also tell you what bus you should take to get somewhere on campus, talk you through a breakup or listen to you vent about inconsiderate roommates. We’ll talk about anything.”
Drawing the Line
HelpLine traces its origins back to 1994, when Dr. Wade Birch, then director of Student Counseling Services, noticed a similar student-run helpline while visiting another university. He presented the idea to Dr. Kerry Hope ’74, who laid the groundwork for Texas A&M’s own helpline service. Hope hired Susan Vavra ’93, then a recent Aggie graduate and new employee in the department, who has since taken a key role in maintaining HelpLine for 25 years.
“Before HelpLine, there was a rotation of counselors from Student Counseling Service wearing pagers all night,” Vavra said. “If a student reported experiencing a psychological crisis, the counselor on call’s pager would go off and they would physically meet with the student at Beutel Health Center, since at the time they stayed open 24 hours.” When it became apparent that Beutel could not sustainably stay open for 24 hours a day, Vavra and her supervisors pushed forward to establish HelpLine as an efficient support system for students during times in which they’re more psychologically vulnerable, typically late evenings and early mornings.
More than two decades since its inception, HelpLine continues to serve students with a dedicated roster of volunteers. However, they face an evergreen challenge in getting the word out about their unique service to the students who could use it most. Even with the HelpLine phone number gracing the back of every Texas A&M student ID card, advertising funds are a necessity for HelpLine to meet its full potential by reaching out to as many students as possible.
To help meet this need, the Houston A&M Mothers’ Club—the largest club for mothers of current and former Aggie students—established a $25,000 endowment to support HelpLine in 2016. The endowment was spearheaded by then-president of the club Naomi Miller, whose daughter was an active volunteer for HelpLine. Funds from the endowment allow HelpLine to allocate more funds for advertising on campus and provide amenities for volunteers while they are on call.
Power in Listening
McCammon recently retired from her volunteer position at HelpLine after seven years with the program. She remembers that, during her training, she struggled to refrain from giving callers direct advice. “It’s hard if you’re a problem-solver like me who wants all problems to be solved and put in a neat little box,” she said. “It gets easier when you see how powerful listening is.
“You can walk into your shift thinking, ‘I just got rained on, I forgot to save my report on my computer and now I have to start over, my day is the worst,’ and then you sit down with someone who just lost someone close to them. Or you talk to someone who’s thinking about ending their life because they’re depressed, and they don’t want to feel that way anymore. It reminds us that our problems can be really small compared to what’s happening out there.”
“Out there” is often so much closer than it appears. The private battles that can consume people—such as those with depression, grief and anxiety—are often just that: private. Students who wrestle with them can put on a show of “having it together” in front of their classmates and colleagues, foregoing help out of a paralyzing shame of needing it.
HelpLine’s strength comes from its removal of that shame, its indiscriminate compassion and its open embrace of caring for strangers. Volunteers know that, if they simply listen and let their callers talk through the night, they may both see the morning light seep back into the sky.