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Students create online forum to discuss mental health issues

| Wednesday, September 28, 2016

This week, a group of students released a beta version of Elephant in the Room, an online forum where students can post anonymous questions about mental health issues on campus.

The project is through Design for America (DFA), an organization started at Northwestern University that helps students design programs aimed at improving communities. Senior Kiely Wilcox, a leadership board member and project leader for Elephant in the Room, said members of Notre Dame’s chapter form small groups focused on different issues in the community.

Senior Ali Julian, another project leader, said in the fall of 2015, she and other members of the mental health issues team partnered with the University Counseling Center (UCC) and began to send out surveys and interview students and employees, aiming to find ways to make mental health issues more approachable.

Wilcox said a major challenge turned out to be knowing how to get help.

“The UCC does have amazing resources to offer students, but students are worried and intimidated to make the walk to St. Liam[‘s] to get help,” Wilcox said.

The group then developed the idea for an online forum, with the refocused goal of helping students access the UCC’s resources.

“Most students our age feel the most comfortable in a technological atmosphere,” Wilcox said. “We wanted to do something that was online, where people could enter whatever they want without judgement.”

Wilcox and Julian are both mechanical engineers, and other project leaders included Kevin McCarthy, a junior chemical engineering major, and Danielle Partyka, a junior marketing major. Since none of the leaders knew how to code, early mockups of Elephant in the Room were PowerPoint presentations with hyperlinks, Wilcox said. Computer science majors Courtney Kelly and Katie Schermerhorn later joined the team.

The group created prototypes of the site and made a final presentation video about the project with the help of a Film, Television and Theatre major last spring, Julien said. Wilcox said the group received a $250 grant from the national DFA to code the site.

Students have to give their names and an nd.edu email address to sign up for the site, but what they post is anonymous, moderated by the DFA team.

“It’s people who are in your same community, go to your same school, someone you could be walking by on your class,” Julien said. “… You’re more comfortable in the community, so though they’re anonymous, you know they’re your peers.”

Wilcox said the DFA team is currently monitoring the site, which runs until fall break, to find out how easily users can interact with it, whether they like its format and responses and what other features they would want to add. She said the group will make improvements and launch the final version before spring semester starts. The team hopes, she said, that other campuses can later have their own versions.

“The goal for the site is that it can be applied to many different schools,” Wilcox said.

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About Emily McConville

Emily McConville is a news writer and photographer for the Observer. She is a senior studying history and Italian with a minor in journalism. She is from Louisville, KY and lives off-campus.

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