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‘On the lookout for each other’: Students provide support for peers in need through DukeLine

March 24, 2024 | By Madera Longstreet-Lipson
Originally published by The Chronicle

“Starting to get nervous about plans for the summer?”

“Need a break from studying?” 

Or ever wonder who’s sending these emails?

DukeLine, an anonymous text line for Duke students, by Duke students, was created to help fill in for high-stress situations when in-person therapy may fall short for students. 

DukeLine originated as a pilot program in fall 2020 and celebrated its campus-wide relaunch in fall 2023. The service is currently led by Guillermo Sapiro, James B. Duke distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering, Sarah Gaither, Nicholas J. and Theresa M. Leonardy associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, and Nancy Zucker, psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor and director of graduate studies in psychology and neuroscience.

The service operates daily from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Joy Knowles, lab manager for the Duke Identity & Diversity Lab, works to recruit a diverse range of coaches to ensure representation for the general student body. 

Oftentimes, Zucker explained, therapy sessions provide advice on what to do in intense moments, but it can be hard to employ those skills when no longer in a calm setting. DukeLine targets this issue by being a live option for students who are struggling in real-time. 

DukeLine can also be a less formal way for students to get help compared to a traditional therapy session. 

“I think there's a lot of moments of distress that don't necessitate a formal therapy appointment. If students can get support in those moments, it increases their confidence about their ability to handle difficult emotions,” Zucker said. 

Peer coaches at DukeLine are students who have interviewed for and completed a one-credit training course taught by Zucker, in which they learn the necessary skills to help an individual manage intense emotions and hopelessness in moments of need. 

Once they finish the course, students are required to work with DukeLine for two semesters. They take weekly shifts, during which they are available to message users. The consistency of peer coaches’ schedules allows for relationship-building between students and peer coaches. 

“A coach will offer: ‘Do you want me to reach out to you during my next shift and check in and see how things are going?’ So some of my coaches talk to the same person throughout the semester, even though they still don't know who each other is,” Zucker said.

Zucker added that it has been rewarding to see peer coaches develop relationships with DukeLine users and each other. 

“It’s been wonderful to see students so dedicated to volunteering their time to help other students and to see the coaches support each other in terms of giving each other advice about how to respond,” she said. “We can create a climate where students are on the lookout for each other, rather than trying to compare and compete.”

Senior Allison Falls took the course during the spring of her sophomore year and served as a peer coach during her junior year. Falls, who hopes to become a therapist after graduation, was initially drawn to it because it gave her clinical experience. 

While she recalls being nervous to start shifts as a new coach, she said that she was able to grow into the role and became more confident in her ability to help others. 

“We're trained in motivational interviewing, so it's a lot of listening to whatever the situation is and not really inputting your own bias, but helping guide the person to reach their own decision,” she said. “I think I’ve grown as a good listener, and honestly, a better friend.”

One challenge with the program has been making the resource known to students. Knowles said that those involved in DukeLine have to “explain what we do every time someone brings it up.” 

In an effort to spread the word about the organization, members of DukeLine have made announcements in introductory classes throughout this semester.

First-year Ewan Dignon said the resource would be valuable for people who are looking to build a support network, but that it would have more of an impact if the hours were expanded. While he believes that those are the times that the program is most effective, he pointed out that “not everyone has a crisis right around dinner.” 

There has also been some confusion among students as to whether the resource is a crisis line. Sophomore Jaya Mendiratta said she was unclear about DukeLine’s services and mission based on the emails she received from them. 

“I thought they were a crisis line, so when I’d see headings like ‘not feeling like you’re enough?’ I would think they were minimizing serious problems people might come to them with,” she said. 

Crisis lines are meant to be used in more escalated situations, whereas DukeLine is a resource “to catch people earlier in that cycle,” Zucker explained.

“Sometimes the evening or the nights can be some of the most challenging times, whether it's something like you're doing your homework and you feel really stressed, or you're having a panic attack or you have friend drama,” Knowles said. “Having that type of support can be really valuable — a listening ear, somebody to remind you that what you're experiencing is valid and that you’re not alone.” 

Students can contact a peer coach at DukeLine by texting (984) 230-4888 while the line is open.