Many of the mental health services at McGill take place in a formal office setting, and some require a wait time from a few weeks up to two months. Vent Over Tea offers a different approach—one that requires little wait time and can take place at any café in the city.
Sarah Fennessy, co-founder of the program and recent McGill graduate with a B.A. in psychology, first proposed the idea for a casual, empathetic listening-based service last April on Spotted McGill. From there she recruited a small group of volunteers to form an organization which pairs together a student who needs to vent and an empathetic listener.
“We will meet you at any café in the city and it appears like a conversation between two friends, which makes the service more approachable,” Fennessy explained.
The ability for conversations to take place within a cafe or any other casual venue is what sets apart Vent Over Tea from other mental health services offered at McGill. Providing a comfortable space, and an ideal audience for the person venting to talk through their issues with is the fundamental goal of the program.
Though not a substitute for other mental health treatments, for some, speaking with an empathetic listener has proven to be just as effective as traditional forms of therapy. In a study by Hans Strupp and Suzanne Hadley, two researchers at Vanderbilt University, college-aged males with mild symptoms of depression were gathered and then split into three groups. Two groups of men were treated by a psychologist, and the third group spoke with a professor who was described as an empathetic listener. According to the study, “Patients treated by professors showed, on average, as much improvement as patients treated by professional therapists.” This inspired Fennessy and the other co-founder, Chloe Chow, to co-ordinate a similar service for students.
Chow, another recent graduate from McGill with a B.Sc. in psychology, explained that ‘ventees’ undergo training through a mandatory active listening workshop in order to learn how to be effective listeners, such as using open body language and good eye contact. Many are also trained in mental health crisis counselling, and have experience with organizations like McGill Nightline and Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS).
“We look for people that are committed to helping others,” Fennessey said. “To interview people I would vent to them and see if I was comfortable, and if they could facilitate the conversation [….] We chose the people who were described by friends as the person they would go to talk to.”
Chow and Fennessey have both been ‘ventees’ and claim that the one hour session is a gratifying experience for them as well as for the person venting.
“Sessions usually start with them very stressed out and by talking it through you can watch them solve the problem on their own and gain some clarity just from talking about it,” Fennessey said. “It’s really rewarding.”
Letting clients come to their own decisions is an important aspect of the program. Ventees are instructed to ask questions that help their partner look more deeply at what is bothering them, and through doing so come to their own conclusions.
People come to vent for many different reasons—the most common being relationships, academic stress, and stress about the future. The goal for the volunteers is not to give advice, but to allow people to talk through their current challenges.
“Everyone is coming because they really feel like they need to get something off their chest,” Chow explained. “What we want to bring back with this service is a sense of interconnectedness—to make [people who are venting] feel validated and heard.”
For now, Vent Over Tea is currently in a transition period. They are remodeling their website and are hoping to have an app soon to link “venters” with “ventees” more easily.
“We always make the joke that it will be like a Tinder for venting,” Chloe said.
Fennessey and Chow are currently contenders for the Dobson Cup—a competition that provides mentorship for student entrepreneurs at McGill. The winners of the competition are awarded funding for their business to grow, and if successful, the two are hoping to expand the program outside of the McGill community.
“The goal is to be accessible to anyone in Montreal who needs to vent, and ideally we would want the service […] to be available in any city,” explained Fennessey. “Everyone in every demographic has something to vent about.”
This article was corrected on Feb. 18. The Tribune regrets these errors.