EWING — About 30 students of The College of New Jersey are in the middle of an 11-week training process to eventually handle phone calls from their peers who are struggling with the stress of college life and general mental health problems.

And there's a waitlist of other students hoping to receive the same training next semester.

The TCNJ-only mental health hotline, a first for the institution, is set to launch in the months ahead, handled in four-hour shifts by TCNJ students who are also being trained to take calls for a national suicide prevention hotline, and for Contact of Mercer County, a local crisis and suicide prevention hotline.

"We've seen a demand for mental health service increasing systematically over the years," said Mark Forest, director of the college's mental health services.

Anxiety is the number-one presenting problem for college students at TCNJ and nationally, Forest said. Many students, he added, have entered TCNJ with a history of mental health treatment and concerns.

The campus was home to two suicides in the 2019 spring semester, Forest added.

"I think some of our students would be more comforted talking to a peer who knows the school, knows the kinds of pressures," he said. "There's just some familiarity for them."

Training for the special line began in September. The students are getting a total of 40 hours of training, over the course of several weeks through early December. Once training is complete, the students can handle calls right on campus.

Forest said the TCNJ-only helpline could open sooner than the end of training because a handful of students have been trained in the past, offsite. Forest said TCNJ is lucky to have a student population that is "very interested in health and wellness."

"The mental health service within college counseling centers can't do this work alone," Forest said. "We really try to develop a culture of care and a culture of support between the faculty, staff, and students, so that we have each other's back."

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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