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The latest session of TimelyMD’s Gen Ztressed webinar series featured a panel discussion on the topic of “Peer Support on the Front Lines of Student Mental Health.” During this discussion, students from across the country shared what mental health is like on their campuses, how they are supporting their peers, and how higher education can use peer support initiatives to strengthen student mental health.
Students in the panel discussion included:
- Jordan Kozuki – California State University, Fresno
- Nathan Blanken – University of Maryland, College Park
- Kayla Lindsey – Lake Tahoe Community College
- Blake Matthews – Ithaca College
Sarah Brown, news editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, moderated the discussion to get a better understanding of how peer support is playing a role in the current state of student mental health support.
The status of student mental health as reported by students
While it’s been almost three years since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, its effects are still prevalent. Nearly all the panelists said that they see many students experience anxious behaviors on campus.
Higher education students are still struggling during the fall 2022 semester with the transition back to in-person classes. Kozuki noted that some professors at California State University, Fresno aren’t offering online classes, which means students don’t have the flexibility or choice if they aren’t ready to be back in the classroom. The student panelists also noted that campus rules and regulations related to COVID-19 have lessened and are not as strict, meaning that masks are becoming a “thing of the past.” This return to normalcy on campus for students, whether they are immunocompromised or still avid mask wearers, can put their physical and mental health more at risk.
Matthews, who is a student advisory committee member for Active Minds on his campus, said that he’s noticed a rise in suicide ideation and relationship trauma among students. Lindsey said that South Lake Tahoe Community College increased its number of international students now that in-person classes are resuming. Burnout is another issue that Kozuki witnessed in her psychology cohort at California State, Fresno.
As the mental health crisis continues to impact college and university campuses, higher education leaders need to proactively adjust to students’ needs when finding solutions that improve their well-being. While considering the student health and well-being journey, it’s important to remember that peer support is often the first way students cope with their stress and anxiety. This first step is critical to removing barriers to care that may be needed in the future.
Student perceptions of different types of peer support
Brown dove deeper into the topic of peer support programs and asked the panelists what they think about different types of programs and resources, including counseling centers, that students can access on campus. Here’s what they had to say.
Virtual peer support
Students often feel more comfortable with utilizing peer support before seeking mental health care from a professional. A peer typically has a better understanding of a student’s struggles, helping an individual feel that they aren’t alone in their health and well-being journey.
In their discussion about the peer support they’ve experienced, the panelists mentioned that most of their interactions happened in person. So, what did they think about an anonymous, virtual-based approach to peer support? They mentioned that virtual peer support gives students a safe space to start talking about the mental health issues they’re going through.
Students who may not have a strong support system can often feel isolated, and virtual peer support is a great resource that can have a lasting impact on their mental health. Peer support isn’t a replacement for professional care, but as Blanken said, it’s the “first line of my defense.”
Matthews called peer support a “psychological first-aid” because it’s like having someone who:
- Has your back.
- Can remind you that you’re not alone.
- May have been in the same situation as you.
- Can speak from a more personal perspective.
- Can be with you right away.
Student-staffed mental health hotline
Most colleges and universities have access to some type of crisis hotline with trained professionals. However, it can still be intimidating and anxiety-inducing to speak with a stranger about personal mental health challenges. Now, some institutions are implementing a peer, student-staffed mental health hotline.
The peer structure offers “the best of both worlds,” said Lindsey.
“You can make an appointment, but the meeting will feel organic, like talking to a friend.”
A similar structure was implemented at Kozuki’s elementary school, where she served as a counselor. From her experience, she noticed students were more willing to talk to someone their own age.
At the University of Maryland College Park, students can access Lean on Me – a texting peer support line that’s available from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. every day. Students remain anonymous, and Blanken said it’s convenient – especially for support after hours, on weekends, and during holiday breaks.
“Having people that are your peers but trained to handle these intense situations and can guide you into helping yourself is super helpful,” said Lindsey.
“Overall, peer student hotlines help increase the conversation around mental health and allow for more frequent outreach. It also makes more room for openness and creates the ‘I get it’ dialogue when speaking with someone who isn’t going to stigmatize you,” said Matthews.
Many colleges and universities are also implementing peer counselors, allowing students to sign up for an appointment. This enables trained peer counselors to support students.
“Having someone who is trained but able to ensure you get the full one-on-one time to talk about something is incredibly helpful, especially for those with busy schedules,” said Matthews.
Online peer community
When asked about an online peer community, like the one launched by TimelyMD, students noted that anonymity in the online community can help alleviate student anxiety about posting or reaching out for support. That layer of protection, combined with quick access, makes it simple and easy for students to engage with each other.
Blanken and Lindsey noted the 24/7 availability of a resource like this, even when away from school. “Everyone is on their phones. So, having a resource like [an online peer community] is super helpful and nice to have off campus,” said Lindsey.
TimelyMD’s Peer Community is an anonymous peer-to-peer support service within the TimelyCare platform that provides students with a safe place to connect with other students across the country who face similar challenges.
Combat the stigma of seeking mental health care
How students can help peers that need support
Kozuki, Blanken, and Matthews are part of Active Minds – a nonprofit organization supporting mental health awareness and education for young adults. Those on Active Minds student advisory committees are taught and trained in the VAR model: validate, appreciate, and refer. With this approach, peer counselors are able to provide a higher level of listening to students seeking support.
When providing support to students on his campus, Matthews makes sure to focus on a non-judgemental approach that includes a lot of validation for what the individual is feeling. He also tries to put referrals in a supportive outlook. Rather than saying, “You need to be referred to a mental health professional,” he says, “How can I be the best support to you?”
While all the panelists agreed that helping their peers in supporting their mental health journey is important, it’s also important they know their limits. Peer counselors and support systems need to recognize when to bring a professional in for care. Peer counselors must understand the topics they aren’t comfortable discussing. Most of all, they can’t forget that their own mental health is just as important as their peers.
How to encourage students to seek out peer support
It’s important for higher education leaders to understand what mental health services and resources college and university students need. Here are a few ideas the students on the panel shared on what mental health resources they would like to see supported on college and university campuses.
- Implement wellness rooms: Help students reduce stress and anxiety by providing a quiet space with resources like fidget toys and light therapy.
- Integrate mental health modules: Establish mandatory mental health modules to help develop best practices for starting conversations around emotional wellness, mental health, and normalizing help-seeking behaviors.
- Raise awareness of CAPS (counseling and psychological services): Educate students about mental health health resources available, like counseling services and workshops, and help establish a community of caring.
- Add mental health resources on student IDs: Incorporate a crisis counseling number and other mental health resource information on student IDs to help ensure students know where to turn when they need support.
- Create mental health events: Host fun, informative, and educational activities that relate to mental health to help students feel more comfortable speaking with one another about emotional and mental well-being.
As higher education leaders reimagine programs and services to attract and support Gen Z college students, they need to promote iterative change based on what works for engaging students. Learn how TimelyMD’s Peer Community can provide your students with a safe space to connect with a nationwide community of college and university students.
If you’re ready to talk about a complete virtual health and well-being solution for your campus, contact TimelyMD to get a personalized quote for telehealth and virtual care options for your institution.