Can peer counseling alleviate the mental health crisis on campus?
According to a new survey of more than 2,000 American students, one in five undergraduate students uses peer counseling for mental health support. Two-thirds say they have faced a mental health problem in the past year.
The survey, “Peer Counseling in College Mental Health,” was conducted by the Mary Christie Institute and the Born This Way Foundation, two organizations that focus on youth mental health. Zoe Ragouzeos, president of the Mary Christie Institute and executive director of counseling and wellness services at New York University, blames the COVID-19 pandemic for increasing student stress, isolation and rustiness in the establishment of social ties.
“A colleague recently told me that he forgot how to be a student,” Ragouzeos said. “Part of it has to do with the fact that students have been away from campuses for so long. And then anyone with a clinical diagnosis has seen an exacerbation of their symptoms during COVID. So if you had an anxiety disorder, it got worse. If you were depressed, it got worse.
Among students who have not used peer counseling, 62% say they would be interested in doing so — a higher share than before the COVID-19 pandemic began, the survey notes. Fifty percent of students surveyed had heard of peer counseling and 40% said peer counseling is available at their institution.
Almost half of all students said the disruption caused by the pandemic made them more likely to seek advice from their peers, including 20% who say they are “much more likely”. This number was even higher for certain demographics: 58% of black students, 54% of Latinx students, 61% of transgender students, and 54% of first-generation students said they were likely to seek advice from their peers.
Students also expressed their willingness to talk to their peers about a variety of issues; 55% said they would discuss stress with a peer counsellor, 48% said anxiety, 43% said depression, and 35% said loneliness.
Institutions should consider using peer counseling to expand their available counseling services, Ragouzeos said, which could reduce wait times for students to get help.
Erica Riba, director of higher education and student engagement at the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that works to prevent suicide among teens and young adults, said peer counseling is a useful complement to existing mental health services on campus. Since psychotherapy can be intimidating for some students, peer counseling gives them the opportunity to meet classmates who might better understand their specific challenges, whether they relate to adjustment issues, relationships, loneliness , stress management or school problems.
However, Riba said the success of peer counseling at a given institution often depends on the capacity of the campus counseling center.
“If a counseling center has a counselor for the entire campus community, developing a peer counseling program can be a lot of work, especially if a staff member oversees clinical service and outreach, as well as other administrative responsibilities,” Riba said. “If institutions decide to go this route, it’s important to be strategic.”
Ragouzeos noted that peer counseling is different on every campus. Some peer counseling groups are affiliated with a campus counseling center, while others are independent and more informal, such as group discussions that connect peers. She recommends that peer counseling programs be linked to campus counseling services whenever possible and, at the very least, that peer counselors be trained by professionals.
According to the survey, 16% of peer counselors say they are unaware of the emergency protocol to follow if they are concerned about the safety of a student, a statistic that worries the Ragouzeos. This means that in some cases introducing a peer counseling option for students could actually create more work for licensed counsellors, she noted.
“Students should be trained to deal with other people’s problems without it having a negative effect on their own mental health,” Ragouzeos said. “As licensed professionals, we are trained for years in our academic and professional settings on how to take care of ourselves as we take care of others. This is an important part of the job that peer counselors need to be trained on.
The survey found that 80% of peer counselors say they have received at least a good amount of training, and nearly half say they have received “a lot” of training. Most (54%) received training through their on-campus counseling center, while 29% said they received training in peer counseling through a program or resource training, and 16% took a combination of on-campus and off-campus training.
Riba said the Jed Foundation recommends that institutions develop clear protocols and procedures around supervision — including monitoring by licensed mental health professionals — and that peer counselors know how to respond to distressed or at-risk students. . She added that posting guidelines on the counseling center’s website detailing exactly what peer counselors are trained to do will help ensure peer counselors and students with mental health needs feel supported.
“There can be many peer support, peer educator, peer counseling programs in higher education,” Riba said. “But what Jed wants to be able to recommend is that there are clear protocols for situations that may be urgent or life-threatening. For example, when the risk of sexual assault, suicide or homicide arises, what should the student do? And do they know how to get the support they need? »
The Jed Foundation offers its own peer workshop, called You Can Help a Friend, to help students learn to recognize and respond to signs of distress in their peers. Riba said students are aware that the pandemic has increased mental health issues, and many have expressed interest in learning more about peer counseling.
According to the Peer Counseling in College Mental Health survey, 45% of peer counselors said they counseled because “it makes me feel good to help other students”, and 40% said “the peer advice has been useful to me, and I’m paying it forward.
Riba pointed to the University of Albany’s Middle-earth Peer Assistance Program, which is led by a licensed psychologist. The program offers a hotline, open from 1 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday and 24 hours a day on weekends when the university is in session. It also provides Peer Wellness Ambassadors, who conduct presentations and workshops for sororities, fraternities, sports teams, and other campus groups on body image and nutrition, life skills, and more. study and test anxiety, time management and relationship issues. Peer coaches, who are trained under the Middle-earth Peer Assist program and must complete several semesters of supervised training, can also meet one-on-one with students to discuss mental health issues. and other welfare issues.
Ragouzeos said Brown University has an effective peer counseling network called Project LETS Peer Mental Health Advocates, which is made up of trained students with “lived experience of mental illness and disability who are committed to helping their peers to navigate the process of self-representation.
Through weekly meetings, Mental Health Advocates at Brown work with other students to achieve goals set by the student. Mental health advocates also create educational workshops, panels, and talks on different topics, including depression, family issues, and eating disorders. Mental health advocates also conduct “creative art therapy projects and alternative therapies” such as yoga and meditation, the organization says on its website.
Satisfaction with peer counseling is high, survey finds; nearly 60% of students who use the service rated it as helpful, and 82% of students who receive peer counseling at their institution say it is able to serve students of different backgrounds and identities. various.
Across different demographics, 59% of transgender students, 42% of LGBTQIA+ students, 42% of first-generation students, and 40% of black students said it was “very important” to find a peer counselor with different identities or similar life experiences.
“Special student demographics, such as black students or students from the LGBTQ community, might view peer counseling as less stigmatizing,” Ragouzeos said. “And they might be able to connect with a student who holds the salient identities they also hold in ways they might not see in their professional counseling services on their college campuses.”
Riba said having a peer counselor who understands what a student is going through is very helpful.
“When we have the space for peer support, we have someone on the other end, via a phone call or in person, who hears the story, hears a student’s journey, and can understand,” Riba said. “It creates more openness, more connection, more understanding, and then the process of being heard and listened to further helps the relationship between the two peers.”