This week for Heard on the Hilltop, we interviewed the head of Project Lighthouse, senior Ben Johnson, about the work that they have begun this past year to improve Georgetown’s mental health.
What is Project Lighthouse and how does it work?
Started last spring, Project Lighthouse has a website where you can anonymously log in from 7pm to 1am, 7 days a week with the exception of holidays. You chat in anonymously and confidentially with a Project Lighthouse peer supporter. They have no idea who you are, and you have no idea who they are. The goal for you to have a listener to bounce ideas off of. We encourage our Peer Supporters to stray away from saying “I understand.” People’s struggles are personal.
Peer Supporter training lasts for one semester, with three hours every Saturday. Each Saturday session features a skill and a topic, for example, depression and unconditional positive regard. There is an hour of lecture with a speaker, from the head of CAPS to a professor for Abnormal Psychology. They share the best practices, experiences of what it is like to actually treat these conditions. The second hour involves skills practice: we talk about how to talk to people and workshop helpful phrases to use in chat. The third hour involves a simulated chat, where Peer Supporters can experience the give and take of real conversation. Topics range from suicide to eating disorders to academic stress and social isolation. By the end of the semester, Peer Supports are ready to get online to chat.
Every night, Peer Supporters gather in an undisclosed location. There are two shifts, early and late of three hours each. When not chatting, Peer Supporters are free to work on homework. They chat as long as you need them to. Peer Supporters have a scheduling system, stating their ability the week before. Project Lighthouse has a budget through SAC and is currently in the New Club Development process.
How did Project Lighthouse get started?
Project Lighthouse had been in the works for a while, but the formation of the GUSA Mental Health Committee under the Rohan/Luther administration was certainly a turning point. It was the first time that this sort of committee had existed, and we wanted to create some sort of listening approach. Georgetown has counseling resources, but there are problems with accessibility, cost, stigma, and information. The aim of Project Lighthouse is to address these four issues. People are weary about spending money, worry about the stigma around going to see CAPS, can’t find time in a 9 to 5 schedule, and want to remain anonymous. Project Lighthouse seemed like the most obvious solution. It was never intended to be a be-all-end-all solution, but we can provide support on a campus like Georgetown, with a busy culture that can often leave students feeling lonely. You don’t really expect to see your friends around finals when you feel the most stress, and it’s nice having someone to connect to and listen to. Getting your rant out can be very therapeutic. We push other resources on campus, most often Health Education Services (HES), which is completely free administrative office that provides health outreach as well as free and confidential counseling for specific issue areas, such as substance abuse and sexual assault.
What kind of problems do you see?
It can really be anything. While we may not have the training or information to work with everything, we can refer you to someone who can. I tell people that some people have mental illness, but everyone has mental health. Project Lighthouse is here for anyone who wants to use it. 50% of chats touch on social concerns, and academic concerns are mentioned in nearly 90% of chats. Many students are comfortable complaining to their friends, but they may not reveal that they truly are worried about or struggling with something academically. A lot of students are terrified of letting down their parents.
Most of our chats last between 35-40 minutes, but there is no obligation for the chats to be that long or that short — we have talked to people from fifteen minutes to two and a half hours. It’s at the chatter’s discretion.
What would you tell someone who is hesitant to use Project Lighthouse?
You can’t knock it ’til you try it! People that hesitant to reach out probably don’t want to try anything. We have really good people — it’s your nicest friends that are the kind of people who join Project Lighthouse. You may not know them personally, but they are the ones their friends turn to when they are in trouble. Having this resource on campus is huge, and it’s OK to chat in with minor things — you aren’t wasting our time. Once, someone chatted in later into the year asking about how to use the GUTS bus because they were embarrassed they still didn’t know. Later in that same conversation, they asked more about CAPS and other mental health resources on campus. It’s a small deal, but it can be the first step to changing a situation that is bothering you. Project Lighthouse is the least committal step, but it is a step if you already know there’s a situation in your life that you would like to change. You can close out of a chat at any time.
How would someone get involved in Project Lighthouse?
Check us out at CAB fair, since that is where we do most of our recruiting. We hold the training classes every semester. There is not an interview process, and we aren’t super selective because the training itself is pretty self-selecting. It’s not easy to be a peer supporter — it’s a heavy time and emotional commitment. We take everyone who signs up for the training and keeps coming every week.
How did you personally get involved?
I have been on GERMS since my freshman year. I noticed that Georgetown is a pretty healthy campus — people work out, eat pretty well, and are young. Because of that, riding on the GERMS ambulance is not necessarily exciting. However, the serious things you see are often mental health issues — panic attacks, stress issues, and even suicide attempts. These were the most serious things, the things that kept me up at night.
My sophomore year, we got a call about a suicide attempt and talked the student into coming to the hospital with them. EMTs should not have to handle mental health issues. It shouldn’t reach an emergency situation. It’s a situation no one wants to get into. So I asked myself, how can I bring change to this community? It’s Georgetown, so I started a student group. The community culture causes the stress, so it’s up to the community to change that and protect its members. That’s where the idea for Project Lighthouse came from. Someone has to step in to help the Georgetown community before crises happen. Who better than the Georgetown community itself?
Visit http://www.projectlighthousegu.com/ to chat in.