Taking cover: How The Bridge forges a different path to mental health

April 21, 2022, 11:49 p.m.

When Kaya first called The Bridge, she was alone, hiding in her friend’s Toyota Highlander. It was 2 a.m. on a Friday night during winter quarter of 2021. A few weeks ago, she and six other Stanford students moved into a house in San Jose together — after losing campus life to the pandemic, they were excited to create a community.

Things didn’t go as planned. The relationships within the house were quickly strained and crumbled. Without the support systems and structures of campus dorms, Kaya and her friends found themselves overcome by disagreements. By the middle of winter quarter, they could barely stand to be in the same room, she said. 

“It was unbearable,” said Kaya, who asked to use a psuedonym and remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “We kept having house meetings and trying to communicate with each other to no avail.”

It was there in her housemate’s car when Kaya, feeling helpless and alone, Googled “mental health Stanford.” The search yielded the Bridge Peer Counseling Center, so she decided to dial their number. 

A bridge over troubled water

When you dial (650) 723-3392, the call goes through to Room 102 in Munger Building 2. Three live-ins, or resident counselors, at The Bridge Peer Counseling Center, Jennifer Wang ’23, Eunice Yang ’22 and Kate Frimet ’22 are up from 12 a.m. to 9 a.m. every night, on call for any students who might need their help.

The live-ins enable The Bridge’s 24/7 availability — the center is Stanford’s student-run peer-counseling center, staffed entirely by trained undergraduate and graduate students. Since its inception in 1971 as a confidential drug-counseling center, The Bridge has become a source of support and relief for students like Kaya seeking answers, advice or just someone to talk to. The Bridge was named after the Simon and Garfunkel song “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

“I’m on your side // When times get rough / And friends just can’t be found / Like a bridge over troubled water / I will lay me down,” the song goes.

The lyrics convey the role that Bridge counselors hope they can play on campus — a role of support and companionship.

Home to the live-in counselors, The Bridge is almost always warmly lit and humming with conversation. When I walked into the room on a Tuesday evening, Yang was lounging on a couch with two friends, scrolling through her phone. Across from her, Wang was focused on work from a purple bean bag. Frimet was at the dining table, laptop propped open as she talked.

Frimet, a political science major and sociology coterm, has been involved with The Bridge for three years now.

“I tend to naturally fall into the caretaker role with friends and loved ones, and I wanted to learn structures of how to do it better,” she said. “I also just keep returning to the idea of community care — staffing The Bridge is a really phenomenal way to give back to our community and support our community.”

Inside The Bridge 

A corkboard next to the dining table maps out The Bridge community in polaroids. At the top of the board are photos of the three live-ins — Yang, Wang and Frimet. Every year, The Bridge houses three to four students who make The Bridge their home, fielding overnight calls between schoolwork and sleep. They serve as the administrative and peer counseling leadership.

The executive team of coordinators comes next — they fix schedules, taking into consideration shift preference forms. According to The Bridge’s website, they directly “administer publicity, finances, workshops, and dorm outreach programs in addition to other activities.”

Pictures of the rest of the staff, including a string of new members, line the bottom of the board. Staffers take over from 9 a.m. to 12 a.m. in three-hour shifts — sometimes, two people will be on call for three hours. Floaters fill in when a last-minute conflict arises. Altogether, The Bridge will have at least 35 staffers in any given year.

Down a corridor is a door labeled “On Call Room.” Inside, Meghan Dontha ’24 is on her first shift as a Bridge staffer. She’s been interested in mental health and psychology since the beginning of high school, and is pursuing a major in psychology.

“A lot of what The Bridge emphasizes is that you are not the one giving advice — it’s the person themselves who needs to figure out what they need to do for themselves,” Dontha said. “It’s our job to listen and guide a conversation that will allow for productive emotion regulation and problem solving.” 

Back outside, the live-ins and their friends are reminiscing about how they came to be roommates. All Bridge staffers are eligible to be live-ins — every year, interested staffers fill out an application and are chosen by a vote of the Bridge community.

“We get along better than we all thought we would,” said Frimet. 

“Wow, okay,” responded Wang, feigning annoyance. The room lit up with laughter.

Being prepared 

To staff at The Bridge, students must complete a two-course training sequence: EDUC 193A: “Listen Up! Core Peer Counseling Skills” and EDUC 193P: “Peer Counseling at the Bridge.” The sequence includes mentoring in issues such as sexual assault, relationship violence, LGBTQ+ issues, cultural competency and women’s issues. Staffers are also trained in QPR (question, persuade, and refer) — the suicide prevention protocol.

“We hold our staffers to a very high standard of preparedness — we know that people will call in about all sorts of problems,” Wang said. “A lot of the most difficult calls come very late at night.”

Lily Liu ’22 M.S. ’23 took the courses because she wanted to be a better friend and a better listener: “When my friends talked about serious issues or traumatic experiences, I didn’t always know how to respond. I felt unprepared for being there for people.”

Liu, a staffer, recommends the two training courses regardless of whether or not students are interested in staffing the Bridge. “I use the tools I learned in those classes every day: active listening, paraphrasing, asking open questions. How do you manage emotions and help someone process how they’re feeling? How do you ask guiding questions to help someone problem solve on their own?”

The Bridge community 

Elsa Wilbur ’24 came to The Bridge in her frosh year searching for two units to fill up her fall schedule, but she stuck around because of the community. “The type of people attracted to peer counseling are just the nicest people on campus.”

Most students find out about The Bridge through word of mouth — whether it is from peers who have gone to The Bridge before, or from students who also staff The Bridge. Wang recalls asking her frosh Resident Assistant how he built such strong listening skills. He credited his know-how to the Bridge’s training sequence, prompting Wang to enroll for herself. 

Once you’re in, it’s hard to leave the Bridge community, according to Andrew Shin ’23.

“Everyone is so caring,” he said. “Everyone checks in on you when you meet them and are super welcoming and open, even when you’re a new staffer.”

According to Liu, at The Bridge, none of the staffers are paid, making everyone a volunteer.

“The hours really stack up — between three-hour shifts, outreach, section leading, meetings, co-counsels and responding to emails,” Liu said. “It’s demanding and loving work. It’s really moving to me that all these people come together to do it, out of nothing but care and love.”

A bulletin board across the room from the dining table lays out simple rules for the staffers: 

  1. Be on time. And don’t leave until the next staffer arrives. Call ahead if you’re late. 
  2. Don’t forget to log.
  3. Live-ins are here to help!

In case of an emergency, please text all three live-ins.

“The Bridge self-selects for very empathetic people who feel responsible for making the people around them feel supported and better,” Frimet said. But the constant stream of conversations with struggling students can be taxing. “Sometimes it’s really hard — you get calls related to your own experiences at Stanford.”

During the pandemic, many of the calls that Bridge staffers fielded were about loneliness, Wang said. It was especially difficult for her to listen to callers describe their loneliness, as she empathized deeply with their struggles and understood the unique persistence of the problem.

As soon as a staffer finishes a counsel, they fill out a log of their call. After, it’s recommended they talk to any or all the live-ins. Not everyone takes up the offer, but new staffers often will. It’s part of live-ins’ responsibilities to help debrief after a particularly intense call.

“After the beginning, there’s a transitional period during which you get better at compartmentalizing,” Wang explained. “You get better at reminding yourself that you did your best and that this is someone on campus you are never going to speak to again. Even if they get off the counsel still crying, you did your best, and it’s important not to take it personally or feel like you have failed.”

“Sometimes there’s a lack of closure from some of the interactions,” Sid Dhawan ’22 M.S. ’23 said. “Sometimes the caller hangs up on you, and you get the feeling that you could’ve done more.”

Serving mental health needs

It is hard to know what to expect when the phone rings at The Bridge, Liu said.

“A lot of people just want to be heard,” she explained. “We practice structuring the counsel, but sometimes callers just want to rant and fully share their feelings from that moment in time. The way we practice it in class is that people have a very specific problem they’re talking about, like a breakup — but in reality life is very complex, and we get that.”

Frimet emphasized the importance of knowing the difference between various mental health resources on campus. While a call to Stanford Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) begins with the caller sharing their name, enrollment status, and SUNet ID (CAPS keeps all information collected strictly confidential, consistent with applicable legal requirements), The Bridge is totally anonymous.

“We don’t have caller ID. If you walk in and a staffer recognizes you they won’t take the counsel,” Frimet said. “If a staffer recognizes your voice over the phone, they won’t take the counsel. We are fully anonymous. We don’t take your name. We don’t ask for any identifying information. In no circumstances do we share anything about you.”

Here and listening

Kaya spoke to a Bridge staffer for over an hour that Friday night in winter 2021. In retrospect, she is immensely grateful for that call, knowing that it got her through her difficulties when no one else could.

“I talked about the house issues, but I also ended up talking about other issues I was struggling with, like my relationship with a friend from back home,” Kaya said. “It was just really nice to talk to someone.”

She headed back into the house feeling relieved and less alone. The next day, she and her housemates had a house meeting that finally progressed towards solutions, reconciliation and healthy communication. The Bridge listens to and supports many people like Kaya — sometimes even receiving calls from people not affiliated with Stanford. 

As I put on my shoes to leave, Wang called out. “Take a duck!” she said, pointing to the shelf of Bridge merch in the entryway. There were stickers, pens, posters, badges and little yellow rubber ducks with “The Bridge” printed on them. A speech bubble on one of the posters read, “Actually? I’m not okay.” The poster made a clear promise back — “I’m here, and I’m listening.”

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