Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

During finals week, I called Fabletics to cancel my subscription for athletic leggings. What I didn’t expect was to stay on the phone for about an hour. The customer service rep, a college student like me, had a comforting tone and was so sincere during our interaction. Without realizing it, I started to talk to her openly about how worried I was for my finals, and we ended up bonding over our mutual stress in anticipation of our exams. After the call, my distress lifted, and I noticed that I felt hopeful and even optimistic. If only I’d known that cancelling a subscription would bring so much relief. Growing up in a strong Sikh community, I have continuously been reminded by my community that mental health issues must only be addressed within the family. In a society where mental health treatment is difficult to access to begin with, this type of cultural belief inadvertently makes getting help even harder, as stigma enters the conversation. It’s no wonder that people are turning to creative and surprising avenues to receive extra comfort. Customer service calls are uncovering a dire, unmet need for emotional support. Here’s what we can learn from this phenomenon:

1) A small dose of support goes a long way — especially for those who don’t know they need it

Many companies have noticed that customer service calls are an effective outlet for callers who may not need professional therapy but simply someone to listen to them. Customer service workers are trained not only to clearly communicate but also to actively listen to the customer’s emotional needs to form a genuine connection with every customer. It turns out, that connection can make all the difference. 

Zappos, a shoe company known for its exceptional customer service, trains its service employees in active listening skills to validate the customer even if the subject has nothing to do with shoes. During training, Zappos coaches employees on how to provide excellent customer service through empathy, empowerment, and solutions. Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO, says “When people call our call center, our reps don’t have scripts, and they don’t try to up-sell. They are just judged on whether they go above and beyond for the customer and really deliver a kind of personal service and emotional connection with our customers.” 

A lot of people who need mental health care help don’t know that they need it unless it is offered to them. This concept is perceived differently from physical pain where if you have a toothache you would see a dentist without a second thought. Customer service lines are ways to reach people who don’t necessarily know they need help and show support. 

2) People like digital communication because of its anonymity and convenience 

Loneliness and anxiety are not constant feelings, and they often vary day-by-day. According to a survey done by Mental Health America, 56.4% of people with a mental illness received no treatment due to lack of access. Customer service calls are anonymous, and communication is happening digitally, which appeals to Millennials because our confessions feel safe. Chat bots were originally used in place of customer service agents as they answered questions about products, provided support, and got the customer what they needed in an efficient way. Similarly, chat bots for mental health and therapy are also being implemented as a way to reach those who hesitate to undergo treatment due to stigma. These applications provide a platform for people to have someone to talk to at any time and place on demand. With the wide use of cell phones and the internet, these anonymous and private apps have become accessible in reaching thousands of people. If we want people to openly share and communicate their feelings, creating a safe environment is the first step. The value of these apps, however, remain untested and may be more valuable in triaging customers to appropriate mental health specialists.

3) People are receptive to help when it isn’t stigmatized 

People on Reddit report feeling hopeless about finding social support for their mental health condition because they don’t want to seek out help from therapists or hotlines and do not know where else to go. It takes a lot of mental strength for people to recognize that they need help, but they may be more receptive to receiving support from places that are not as stigmatized. People are more responsive to help when it meets them where they are. Therefore, we need to think about creative spaces to help, and customer service calls are an unassuming place where people seem to be finding support. It’s important that we circumvent stigma, gaining traction where people are already going. 

While unique outlets like customer service calls can provide emotional support for people who are experiencing mental distress, they are not a replacement for evidence based therapy. If people in certain industries, such as customer service reps, are prone to receiving suicide calls, they should receive the appropriate training to help triage callers to suicide hotlines and professional help. My conversation with Jenna from Fabletics was more than encouraging. Her words helped me face my exams with courage. In a world full of stigma and barriers to help, it’s important to remember that support is support — regardless of where it’s coming from. 

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More Thrive Global on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis