“Comet Support,” a mental health text line developed as a partnership between UTD’s Office of Information Technology, the Wellness Center and the Student Counseling Center, is set to provide students with preliminary mental health help and connect them to campus-specific resources.
Newly redesigned since The Mercury’s coverage of the app in 2022, Comet Support will launch in the coming weeks. Spearheaded by Kavya Kannan, a neuroscience junior, the app will complement the existing crisis hotline and other support services by creating a comprehensive network of students offering and seeking assistance. The app will act as a first point of contact, both introducing students to care and linking them with professional mental health services.
“I am used to being the new kid, and being the new kid, you don’t always have a support system,” Kannan said. “I wanted to ensure that everyone has a support system, cause mental health is such an important issue; and I saw that a lot of students were struggling with that.”
Kannan constantly moved homes as a child, from India to the UK before finally settling in the US; her desire for a better support system was the inspiration for Comet Support. The text line connects Comets anonymously to student volunteers, who provide preliminary counselling before redirecting the student seeking help to professionals for serious concerns. Beyond counselling, the application also answers student questions on how to access campus resources including the Student Success Center, Student Counseling Center and Comet Cupboard.
“It is a bridge between students and the resources that they need. It is a service that points students in the right direction in terms of seeking mental health care,” Director of the Student Wellness Center Kacey Sebeniecher said. “This is not the solution, as we don’t have mental health professionals, but we are guiding them to the resources that are available to them, whether it is academic, emotional, or support.”
The soft launch of the application is scheduled for the coming weeks, when the application will be made accessible to students as a tile on the UTD app. This application will only be open for a few hours once a week in the evenings to assess traffic and scale the application accordingly. This soft launch would also help developers to review the number of volunteers required as well as the hours the application would have to be run to make it fully available by the spring semester.
“We are not aware of how much traffic we are going to get with the app, as we have a limited number of trained volunteers,” Sebeniecher said. “But the good news is that if we do have an influx of responses, we can expand our hours fully in the spring.”
To find student volunteers, the Wellness Center conducted a campus wide search via Handshake for Comets of all majors interested in anonymously supporting their peers. Volunteers were then trained by the Student Counselling Center and the Student Wellness Center on conflict resolution, suicide prevention, basic mental health recovery resources and what resources to recommend to students. There are also future plans to develop the training program used to train the volunteers into a full-fledged UT course for students of the psychology department.
“We supported Kavya in figuring out what training would be relevant to our volunteers,” Sebeniecher said. “We have also … done some practice runs where we have had students send us some text messages so we can have some real time practice.”
Comet Support is also supported by some auxiliary services, such as Atlas. These services would help the volunteers to look up and share resources that the student might require during the live chat. Moreover, to ensure data privacy and security of the students involved, precautions have been taken to retain the data on the cloud only for a short duration and implement robust safeguards, such as role-based access and firewalls to give UTD a safe and secure environment for the students and faculty.
“We are only keeping the data for a very short amount of time,” Manager of Mobile Application Development atOIT Peterson Wayne said. “So, the conversation will be automatically deleted, and data will not be retained.”
Though the text line is currently being released in UTD, Kannan is currently in discussion with the university board of UT to make the text line available across the UT system. Her future research project in collaboration with Duke university would look into practical points behindwidespread adoption of anonymous text-lines like Comet Support at other universities.
“Comet Support is not the solution that provides mental health