In this monthly Q&A series we aim to highlight the projects and contributions of those in the Princeton community, including faculty, students, and staff, that engage with service in unique ways. This month, we spoke to Madison Werthmann ’20, a sociology major and project leader with CONTACT Princeton, a Student Volunteers Council service project whose volunteers answer phone calls for a local crisis hotline and a national suicide hotline in collaboration with CONTACT of Mercer County.
Can you explain briefly what CONTACT does?
CONTACT of Mercer County is a local emotional support hotline. This means that we take calls from regular people in the community who just want someone to talk to. People call to talk about their days, the things that stressed them out recently, the TV shows they watch, or the traumas which they continuously struggle with. We take calls on a broad range of topics, and we really get to know some of our callers as we hear their stories. Our focus during these calls is being an active listener, and being somewhere for our callers to talk without judgement or fear of breaching confidentiality. On top of that, CONTACT volunteers are also trained to respond to calls to the National Suicide Prevention Line (NSPL) that are from local area codes. When we receive calls from the NSPL, we focus on crisis prevention, and sometimes intervention when necessary.
What are your responsibilities in CONTACT?
As one of the two project leaders for CONTACT, I focus mostly on setting up the infrastructure of CONTACT Princeton. CONTACT of Mercer County was brought over to Princeton about four or five years ago by the original project leader, and since then, we have worked on strategies for adapting CONTACT's programming to the Princeton environment. That meant implementing more support networks into the training process; we recognize that what we do can be stressful, and particularly so when you're already dealing with the academic environment here at Princeton. Thus, we've worked very hard on making CONTACT a community which can support its members through the good times and the harder times when taking calls.
As a volunteer, my responsibilities are simply to take calls from the people in the community. I'm constantly relying on the skills that I've learned during the (very thorough) training process, and making sure that no matter how many calls I've taken, I answer each new one with the sense of honor that comes with knowing that the caller has trusted me enough to let me into this microcosm of their life during a time of need.
Why were you drawn to working with CONTACT?
I was drawn to working with CONTACT for a few reasons. To start, I felt compelled by my own circumstances in my personal life to help people that are struggling mentally or emotionally. I know how hard it can be to feel like you are surrounded by people but that you can't talk to any of them about the things you really need to talk about, so I wanted to be that resource for someone else. Additionally, I've always tried to live my life as a listener rather than a talker, so this felt like a natural extension of that tendency. And finally, I met some of the best people in CONTACT. The group is comprised of people who hold empathy and genuine care close to their cores; the people who join CONTACT are willing to be there during some of people's most difficult and heartbreaking moments, and so I've found it to be a really great niche on campus where you can open up almost instantly and feel like you are being accepted by every person in the room. I don't think it's the only place on campus where this can happen, but I think it was the right space for me.
What unique opportunities for mental health services such as CONTACT do you see on Princeton's campus?
There's still a long way to go when it comes to being open about mental health on campus. The Princeton Perspective Project is doing great work to try to emphasize the realities of mental health on campus, and the Me Too Monologues are also super important for normalizing mental health concerns. Not only that, but the Princeton Peer Nightline is doing a great job of being a student-centric service much like CONTACT, where students can go and vent without fear of being judged or exposed. However, even with all of these services -- which don't even begin to touch on the many services which Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) offers -- there is still a stigma surrounding talking about mental health. Even now, as someone who works on a suicide hotline and has been open with a great number of people in my life about my own mental health struggles, I find them hard to share them here, knowing that people are going to read this.
Unfortunately, a large part of that stigma is just the reality of the world right now, and Princeton can't hope to break through every layer of that. But things are definitely improving in that regard, and more and more initiatives have popped up on campus and will continue to pop up, so I'm happy with the direction that we're headed. I think something I would like to see happen would be more accessible forums for talking about mental health on campus in real time. CPS has group sessions about particular topics regarding mental health (which I bet are incredible) but I know that the formality of signing up for CPS-led groups can be daunting for some people who are still just trying to figure things out. On that note, I hope more people seek out the Peer Nightline's services, but I'd also like to see something pop up where just students could gather in a space without pressure and talk face-to-face about what's happening without fear of it leaving the room. Maybe that's a little too idealist, but I think something like that could be great.
Why do you think it is important for Princeton students to be conscious of mental health issues like the ones CONTACT addresses?
College is a high-stress environment. Princeton is a high-stress environment. We're all at a relatively tumultuous and high-stress period of our lives. Many of us will face serious rejections for the first time while we're here. For some people it takes some time before they find their niche after their freshman year, and college can feel particularly lonely. Everything is so go-go-go that it's very easy to forget to stop and take a breath. That kind of constant, continuous stress -- especially when combined with the poor eating, sleeping, and exercising habits which are practically inevitable during college (particularly during tough weeks) -- are a recipe for bad mental health and possibly even emotional crises. "The straw that broke the camel's back" is a genuine concern; all of this build up can topple over in a moment if something inconvenient or upsetting happens, and that can lead to breakdowns and worse if we aren't watching out for it. It's important to be aware of this so that students can protect themselves and their peers. It's way too easy to wait until straw-meets-camel before seeking help, but once that straw breaks the camel, it's much harder to go back and make things right again. It's important to routinely consider your mental health and take care of it the way you would any other part of your body. If you notice that you're coming down with a serious illness, you go to a doctor. If you start feeling anxious, or depressed, it's important that you seek the kind of help that works for you -- whether it's a therapist, calling a friend, calling the NSPL, going for a walk to get out of study-mode, or taking five minutes to listen to your favorite song with your eyes closed. It's important to give yourself these little reprieves from time to time, and to check in with yourself regularly.
Is there anything else you would like people to know about you or your role?
I think that pretty much covers it!