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Tech Startup hEARt Brings An Empathetic Ear To Students Everywhere

Laura Cowan

By Laura Cowan

Laura K. Cowan is a tech editor and journalist whose work has focused on promoting sustainability initiatives for automotive, green tech, and conscious living media outlets.

hEARt, Optimize, University of Michigan, entrepreneurship, startup culture, Ann Arbor Tech, Aastha Dharia

College campuses have been through a number of crises lately, from dealing with increasing academic pressure to a growing number of active shooters to high rates of alcohol abuse among young people. One startup aims to offer students support in a format that works for their lives--in demand, online, and peer to peer. hEARt is a new startup founded at the University of Michigan out of the OptiMize program, which is creating a platform and peer mentoring service to combat the mental health crisis facing many students in college and even in high school.

What is hEARt?

We believe that hEARt’s strategy of providing peer support through online chat will help combat the crisis on campus. Communicating through online chat, a practice commonly referred to as “chat therapy,” has been proven to help treat depression and anxiety as effectively as in-person therapy, with the added benefit of being right in a user's pocket. Peer support is another evidence-based technique, shown to engage hard-to-reach individuals, reduce hospitalization rates, and decrease substance abuse among users.

hEARt is an outstanding preventative care measure that will be accessible, anonymous, free, and most importantly, localized. Peer supporters will be extensively trained in practices that will well-prepare them for difficult conversations, and they'll be made fully aware of all the resources available at their university so that they are comfortable referring users to the appropriate resources if needed.

Ours is a product that has value in two spaces; first, as a resource for students looking for support for themselves, and second, as a resource for students who are looking for strategies that will help them support their friends. hEARt would be the only product available to offer all these benefits.

hEARt, Optimize, University of Michigan, entrepreneurship, startup culture, Ann Arbor Tech, Aastha Dharia

Aastha Dharia of hEARt.

Aastha Dharia is co-CEO of hEARt, and she told us more about the new startup, which is just now launching programs in mid-2019 heading into fall: "hEARt Listens is a training and application software company founded with the aim of bring an empathetic ear to students everywhere," Dharia says. "From our own experiences as well as research, we discovered how bad the mental health crisis on college campuses can be. Our goal is to design an application that quickly and anonymously connects students who want to talk with students who want to listen, and who have been versed in the skills necessary to have difficult conversations."

How did this turn from an idea into a real venture? Dharia says that the entrepreneurial programs at the University of Michigan made all the difference: "When we first decided to pursue hEARt, we spoke to a few mentors who directed us towards OptiMize," Dharia says. "We were conscious of the fact that it was our first time entering an entrepreneurship space and there were skills that we would need that we didn't have as much experience with as we would have liked, so we were looking for a little bit of mentorship. We also had a pretty limited amount of funding to start with and knew we would need more to accomplish our end goals. Joining OptiMize ended up being the perfect way to access a community of people who had the experience and resources we were looking to tap into."

hEARt, Optimize, University of Michigan, entrepreneurship, startup culture, Ann Arbor Tech, Aastha Dharia

hEARt has two primary services, an online chat application for peer-to-peer counseling, and an in-person coaching program for training support staff. "Our primary service is our peer support chat application, which will serve as the platform through which students on the same campus can be quickly and anonymously connected to another student who has had experience overcoming difficulties in the same area," Dharia says. "While we don't quite have the resources to build an app yet, we're currently working on testing a prototype built through Google Voice and Twilio. Users can anonymously text in to the hEARt Line through Google Voice, which sends a request back through Twilio to connect them to a hEARt supporter and start a conversation. We were able to run a brief pilot at the end of the last semester and are hoping to launch a second round of user testing with the service this fall, updated with the feedback we received from our last trial."

"Alongside that, we're working to develop a hEARt Supporter Training Program so that our supporters on the other end feel equipped to have these conversations while also maintaining there on self care. We've found that while students often want to help their peers when they see them struggling, they often don't feel like they know how to have these conversations. The training program teaches skills such as empathy, active listening, motivational interviewing, boundary setting, and more. Though we have the structure built out, we're working on refining the program with the help of a social worker at the University of Michigan, and will hopefully be ready to have it reviewed by several other health professionals by the fall."

hEARt, Optimize, University of Michigan, entrepreneurship, startup culture, Ann Arbor Tech, Aastha Dharia

And there is one more component to the hEARt model, according to Dharia. "Our final product is our With hEARt workshops, which are focused on high school students rather than college students, and are designed to teach valuable life skills that are often overlooked as high school students transition into post secondary. Our first set of workshops was piloted in two classes at Novi High School this past March, and centered around educating students on mental health challenges, as well discussions on the importance of empathy, self-care, and communication when it comes to leadership and relationships. We’re working on refining the workshops for a new set of classes in the fall, and hoping to expand to a few other communities as well." 

hEARt is just getting started, but the need right now for peer-to-peer student counseling online seems to be growing, and the new startup is already piloting programs for expansion. Like the student ventures FoodFinder and Peerstachio from TechArb we profiled a few months back who were shortly picked up by Newsweek, we hope the best for this new company. We'll check back in with the team as the company expands their offerings to see how it all plays out. For now you can learn more about the team's plans on the hEARt website, which, like the rest of the startup, is still in development as each product and service launches this fall.

aastha dharia, ann arbor tech, entrepreneurship, heart, optimize, startup culture, university of michigan

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