The Georgetown University Student Association Mental Health Committee announced the creation of the Project Lighthouse mental health initiative Jan. 13, which will implement a peer-to-peer online chat service to let Georgetown students anonymously communicate with trained supporters on issues such as stress culture, sleep problems and thoughts of self-harm.
The initiative plans to welcome its first class of peer supporters through an eight-week training period from February to March, garnering support and resources from professionals in Georgetown’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services and Health Education Services.
After training volunteer peer supporters, Project Lighthouse will conduct a beta test in early April to evaluate student interest and begin plans to transition into full service by final exams in May. The initiative will tentatively be in operation every day of the week on evenings and nights, from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.
GUSA Deputy Chief of Staff Ken Nunnenkamp (MSB ’16) said Project Lighthouse’s creation follows longstanding planning for a peer-driven mental health initiative, inspired by programs at other schools such as Cornell University’s Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service.
“I think a year and a half ago to two years ago [GUSA] brought up the idea of starting a program on campus similar to what Cornell has called EARS — they do mostly just phone call and in-person visits — but it’s the same thing, a peer-to-peer, student-run program,” Nunnenkamp said. “Cornell was one of those schools that I think suffers some of the highest rates of [depression]. It was a particularly effective program there.”
GUSA Undersecretary of Mental Health Ben Johnson (NHS ’17), who leads the GUSA Mental Health Committee, said Project Lighthouse fills an existing gap in mental health services on campus through directly connecting students to peers and focusing on the initial symptoms of mental illness.
“Our endeavor is to fill the gap of something very easy to access, of something that is not scary,” Johnson said. “This is a service that students can go to if they’re very confused and they don’t need to identify a big issue [to talk] about … it’s when they’re in the initial stages of feeling confused about where to go, Project Lighthouse will be their supporter.”
Nunnenkamp said Project Lighthouse serves as a way to lessen the workload for CAPS and other university mental health resources while providing a valuable service to students.
“There are a lot of great things that CAPS does and unfortunately due to funding problems, they’re over capacity, so this helps pick up the difference given the high volume of students who feel like they’re experiencing mental health problems.”
Nunnenkamp also stressed that Project Lighthouse will maintain a relationship with CAPS, but that Project Lighthouse advocates will not serve a direct role as formal counselors.
“We’re working with CAPS very closely — we’re very clear that we’re not counselors — we’re supporters, advocates, people who are just there to listen,” Nunnenkamp said.
Nunnenkamp said the response from potential applicants has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I’ve been so blown away by the enthusiasm and level of interest people have shown,” Nunnenkamp said. “A lot of our volunteers are coming from a psychology background … we’re lining up several other Georgetown professionals who are in the psychology department to talk and participate in the program as well.”
While the Project Lighthouse initiative will exist separately from the GUSA Executive, President Joe Luther (COL ’16) said he plans to support the initiative and is excited about the expansion of mental health resources on campus.
“Mental health has been a serious issue for us since Connor and I first began our GUSA campaign,” Luther wrote in a press release. “We are thrilled that Hoyas are actively working to improve and expand the mental health resources available to fellow Hoyas.”
Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson also expressed his support for Project Lighthouse and acknowledged the importance of student initiative in increasing mental health resources.
“I really appreciate the students’ initiative and care in pursing this initiative,” Olson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I know they understand the importance of thoughtful training and strong preparation to assure that this is a valuable resource for our students. I am enthused to see this moving forward.”
According to Director of Health Education Services Carol Day, Project Lighthouse is a result of thoughtful collaboration between mental health professionals and students.
“The students that have been working on the Project Lighthouse initiative have collaborated with many key individuals in the university as part of their planning process,” Day wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We expect the service that trained students will eventually be providing will be a valuable resource for students to get support and link to important resources.”
Director of CAPS Phil Meilman expressed CAPS’s continuing support for Project Lighthouse.
“We look forward to supporting this new and creative venture at Georgetown and hope it will be of great benefit to students,” Meilman said.
GUSA Vice President Connor Rohan (COL ’16) said Project Lighthouse increases awareness of mental health issues on campus and will reach an increased number of Hoyas.
“Project Lighthouse will allow more students to receive assistance, improve knowledge about professional resources on campus, and reduce the stigma associated with seeking out mental health resources,” Rohan wrote.
Nunnenkamp said Project Lighthouse’s eventual objective is to standardize its curriculum in order to share resources with other colleges and universities nationwide.
“We’re hoping in the coming semesters to standardize and we hope we can create — starting at Georgetown, but then spreading to other schools — a national standardized curriculum and certification based on the work we’re doing here.”
According to Johnson, the Project Lighthouse initiative’s name symbolizes the program’s purpose.
“When we were trying to come up with the name of this project … we wanted to move away from acronyms because we didn’t just want to be another Georgetown organization,” Johnson said. “To me, a lighthouse is a service to help people find their way. It’s a light in the darkness.”
Michael Knuth (MSB ’16) said Project Lighthouse’s continual availability would greatly aid Georgetown students.
“On campus, we have this culture where we try and pretend everything’s okay instead of admitting that we need help, so just having that availability would really benefit students on campus here.”
Nick Ebert (SFS ’18), who is applying to be a Project Lighthouse program participant, said he was drawn to the initiative because he wants to help peers in their time of need.
“I know that with CAPS it’s very hard to get an appointment after the start of the semester. It’s either at the beginning or you almost can’t get one,” Ebert said. “This would be an opportunity for … enough people [to be] around to provide that resource all the time. It’ll be good to have people on the ground, able to talk.”
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