The Deutschlandstipendium scholarship program supports students who show special social commitment. One example is Marcel, who has been working for almost two years on a suicide prevention project. The online platform [U25] provides desperate young people with free, anonymous advice by e-mail. Further, [U25] was in the final selection of the Aspirin Sozialpreis 2015 of the Bayer Cares Foundation.
It's very much a taboo subject. “Suicide among young people and children is a major problem that receives far too little attention,” says Marcel. The 21-year-old is a third-year medical student in Berlin and would like to become a trauma surgeon. Some 600 young people a year take their own lives in Germany alone. “Suicide is seen as an act of weakness and lack of self-worth. This social attitude needs to change and I’m convinced that open and frank discussions can achieve a great deal,” he says.
The [U25] project offers help to young people in distress. They can use the online platform to discuss their fears and problems with others in their age group via e-mail, covering issues ranging from school and parents to suicidal thoughts. “The concept really appealed to me. And when a new center was opened in Berlin in 2013, I applied to become an e-mail adviser, also known as a peer,” explains Marcel. In a six-month training course, he learned how best to handle young people’s questions. The peers meet regularly during the training and continue to do so afterwards so as to collectively examine and evaluate particularly tricky messages.
Marcel works online to deal with questions and issues raised by children and young people who contact [U25]. They create a user account on the online system. To do this, they only specify a nickname and password – they do not need to reveal personal data such as their real name. Contact is anonymous. “Firstly, this gives callers security. If I try to arrange a personal meeting at an advice center near the client, they often refuse,” says Marcel.
Initially, the caller is assigned a peer in his age group. One principle is that e-mails should be answered within seven days. “We peers take this promise very seriously, as it also provides people in a desperate situation with support if they can expect a reply within a particular time frame.” Marcel has organized Sunday as a working day so as to reconcile his commitment with his studies. “I answer all of my [U25] emails on that day. This takes between one and four hours,” he says.
He stays in very close contact with some e-mail correspondents, while others contact him at monthly intervals. “You need to have stamina. Supervising a client can be personally very draining,” explains Marcel. He finds it particularly distressing that young people who have their whole lives ahead of them suddenly want to throw it all away. “But you also have to learn to distance yourself emotionally, as harsh as that sounds. This is equally important for my later career as a surgeon,” he says. If he notices that someone is at extreme risk of suicide, he passes the case on to the management at the center, where peers can always get advice in case of problems.
[U25] now has offices in five German cities – but this isn’t enough to handle the demand. In 2012 – ten years after the first center was founded in Freiburg – there were 1,900 initial inquiries from young people. Local peers couldn’t meet the enormous demand, and the other advice centers are also struggling with the large number of inquiries. “The waiting lists are full although more peers are being trained all the time,” says Marcel. “I hope many more advisers will follow – and I myself want to stay as long as possible to help young people take control of their lives again.”