Students Oshin and Jarne founded Epione, a chat line for and by students, two years ago. Meanwhile, their initiative to improve students' mental well-being is even on the radar of the Belgian King.
How did the idea of a chat line for students come about?
Oshin (Faculty of Arts and Philosophy): "It started as a project to deal with the wait time to get help from a student psychologist. Both at Ghent University and outside of the university, the waiting times for an interview were increasing enormously. But students with certain problems like addiction or suicidality can't wait that long. Some students also don't need a professional counseling interview right away, but a low-threshold counseling interview already can help when feel lonely, for instance. Just getting their heart out can do a lot."
Jarne (Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences):"Our first contact with those students can also be a stepping stone to professional help. As a student it is sometimes difficult to know where to turn. So we also try to get students in the right place."
Why did you specifically choose a chat service?
Jarne: "We thought about other options at the start, such as a phone line. But we also came up with a few basic objectives. Two of them were anonymity and accessibility. The advantage of chatting versus phoning is that you can talk freely without anyone listening in. You might be in a student room with very thin walls and therefore feel impeded from talking out loud. Via chat, we also can't recognise your voice. And we don't ask for any personal details like how old you are or what you study."
Oshin: When people feel mentally not well, visiting a psychologist can be a big step. Often, you don't want others to know that you are seeking help. For instance, if you are in a difficult home situation, you can't just drop by the psychologist in the evening unnoticed. Fellow students can also recognize you on the street. A chat window, on the other hand, you can easily close and click away."
What problems do students usually come to you with?
Oshin: "Four major themes can be distinguished. Study stress or questions about study methods is one of them. We often see these among beginning students. Loneliness is another one. Especially related to the corona crisis. Eating disorders are also relatively common, slightly more so during exam periods. And finally, there is transgressive behaviour, mainly linked to nightlife, but also in relationships and friendships.
Like you, the volunteers who chat are all students?
Oshin: "Yes, it is important that our volunteers are in the same stage of life as the students who come to chat. They know better what is going on among students or, for example, what cafes are popular."
Jarne: "I would like to explicitly thank all our volunteers. They carry the whole organisation. Without them, there would be no chatline."
Oshin: We can't do that as our volunteers remain anonymous. We as initiators are often in the picture, but we are not at the front line. Those are our volunteers. They do it. They make time to chat next to their classes and other activities."
You recently got to go introduce Epione to the King at the Royal Palace. How did he come to you?
Oshin: "I had nominated Jarne for an award around volunteering. From those submissions, seven projects were selected for an interview with the King. But we had not seen it coming. It is also surreal to find such an official letter stamped by the royal house in your mailbox. It doesn't sink in immediately."
How did the visit go?
Jarne: "It's kind of impressive to step in there. Good coffee too. (laughs) We were able to chat for 10 minutes with the King about Epione and then also another 10 minutes with Home Affairs Minister Annelies Verlinden.
Oshin: "I think we were able to broaden the King's view a bit. Students usually get stereotypical attention in the media. But with our project, we have shown that mental well-being is important for all age groups, including students."
What plans or dreams are there for Epione's future?
Jarne: "The ultimate dream is that the organisation will continue to exist when we two graduate. That our effort has a permanent impact on mental well-being."
Epione is an online chat service where you are able to have an anonymous and free one on one conversation about all of your problems or questions. Check epione.gent for more info.