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MIT Students Code Their Way to Suicide Prevention

Lean On Me is more than a song. A new anonymous texting hotline hopes to lower suicide rates

Published on: March 08, 2016

girl in hallway with cell phone

I've got a keen eye for information on preventing suicide. I suffered from clinical depression as a teenager and so know first-hand the kind of help young adults preoccupied with suicide need.

Most recently, I spotted this good news: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students developed an anonymous texting hotline to help lower their college's infamous suicide rate.

“Through an anonymous texting hotline called Lean On Me, anyone in the MIT community in need of support can reach out at anytime and connect with a peer,” reports NBC News.

Three MIT students built Lean On Me at the school's annual HackMIT hackathon, a famous 24-hour event where 1,000 hackers gather on MIT’s campus to work on software and hardware projects.

The project is personal. One of Lean On Me's creators and MIT sophomore Andy Trattner was ten when his mother died. He was sent to therapy but found it ineffective. He wanted to talk to someone his own age. Lean On Me seeks to create such a space.

"I wanted to find a way to create a safe space where students could get past the trivialities of 'How are you? What classes are you taking?' and really get to the core of each other," Trattner told NBC News.

The result: Lean On Me, which automatically and anonymously matches peers to fellow users trained as "peer supporters." These supporters are trained through the Lean On Me’s website materials and a two-hour training session. 

One of the training sessions' teachers is Libby Mahaffy, MIT’s assistant director for Conflict Management. Her "hurricane video" inspired Lean On Me's peer support philosophy. As Mahaffy explains in the video, "when someone tells you their problems, it can look like a hurricane at first."

"Your first instinct might be to ask how hard the wind is blowing, or in which direction, but that's wrong," Trattner adds. "That person in the hurricane just needs someone to be with."

Lean On Me started running at MIT in February. The organization is applying for non-profit status and Trattner hopes to have a plan for lauching similar texting services at other colleges by the end of this summer.

Could the program work at high schools? Yes, Trattner says. "High schools are a wonderful place for students to start developing the life skills to support each other," he told me. "There is a huge potential to do this or to partner with local colleges and offer peer support that way. Perhaps with high schoolers matched to local college students, possibly alums."

In the meantime, our local community offers much support for teens preoccupied with suicidal thoughts. Learn more at “Facts and Myths about Teen Suicide: Why Starting the Conversation Is Critical.” For immediate help, contact Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).

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