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Mental health peer-to-peer programs are designed to mobilize students to become agents of change for mental health and well-being on their college campuses. The peer-to-peer model is an effective approach to shifting social norms that encourage positive health behaviors. Research shows that peers strongly influence the decisions and health behaviors of other students. Students who are influenced positively by their peers will engage in new activities and make healthier choices. Conversely, students can also be influenced by their peers to make unhealthy choices.
Young adults are more likely to seek help from their friends versus a mental health care provider or any other person in their lives. That’s why implementing a peer-to-peer program in the college setting is considered an effective practice by The JED Foundation (JED). Not only can peer-to-peer programs expand the network of individuals who can intervene before a mental health crisis occurs, but it also creates an environment where students are modeling positive health behaviors that influence other students to practice self-care and seek help for themselves or a friend before a critical situation occurs.
Types of peer-to-peer programs
A variety of peer-to-peer mental health programs exist on college campuses across the country. Programs like Active Minds, Project LETS, and Lean on Me have a network of chapters supported by national organizations that provide training and technical assistance. Other programs, such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Student Support Network and the University of Albany’s Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program were developed by campus professionals to mobilize and train students to provide a range of peer assistance, support and education services. In addition, professional organizations such as NASPA host Certified Peer Education training and provide technical assistance to institutions that establish peer education programs.
Program goals and activities
Generally, peer-to-peer programs aim to enhance mental health literacy, which involves:
- Reducing stigma and other barriers associated with seeking help for mental illness and emotional distress.
- Increasing awareness of self-care for mental health and well-being.
- Increasing awareness of services available and help-seeking behaviors.
- Creating a culture of support for student well-being.
- Using shared experiences to offer help to friends or peers dealing with mental health conditions.
Peer-to-peer support services differ from each other in the activities that they offer.
- Lean On Me and Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program have hotlines where peers answer text messages or calls from students looking for emotional support on topics that range from college adjustment to alcohol and drug concerns.
- Student Support Network focuses on training students over six weeks through a variety of skill-building activities to help friends in crisis or distress.
- Active Minds and Project LETS establish chapters on campuses that are designed to support students through peer education and advocacy in their communities.
These groups function as extensions of existing campus resources and often partner with campus departments such as counseling centers to expand their reach and impact.
Young adults are more likely to seek help from friends
Barriers to help-seeking behavior
Peer-to-peer programs serve an important role in addressing the common barriers that exist for students seeking help. These barriers tend to relate to their perceptions of what care entails and how seeking help might impact how they are viewed by others. Lack of time or inability to locate or afford services can be barriers.
However, three major factors emerged from research that explored help-seeking behaviors, including:
- Perception of acceptability
- Perception of trusted available help
- Attitude towards seeking help for a friend even if the friend asked for secrecy
Research has also found that a significant barrier for help-seeking is students’ perception that they need to be self-reliant and able to cope with their own problems. Not only does self-reliance lead to less help-seeking behavior, but it is also associated with higher depression and suicidal ideation. Peer-to-peer programs can influence the perception or expectation of the need to be self-reliant by engaging students in conversations where they can learn from one another about the benefits of self-care, the acceptance of seeking care, and the availability of trustworthy support from peers and professionals.
How peer-to-peer programs address barriers to care
Peer-to-peer programs can address these barriers and enhance help-seeking through the promotion of acceptability, trust, and the benefit of connecting friends to mental health support.
Peer-to-peer programs do this by:
- Hosting events that increase awareness (i.e. discussions, film screenings, activities, etc.).
- Sharing information about the services available on campus (i.e. presentations or tabling events to educate students about campus counseling services).
- Raising money for local or national organizations (i.e. Active Minds, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)).
- Keeping students up-to-date on external resources like NAMI peer-to-peer and the NAMI helpline.
- Advocating for policy or procedure changes on campus (i.e. mental health withdrawal policies).
- Sharing student voices in spaces where students need representation (i.e. administrative committees).
Positive outcomes of peer-to-peer support programs
The outcomes of a peer-to-peer program demonstrate that the model works to increase:
- The likelihood that students reach out to other students who they are concerned about.
- The likelihood that students seek support for themselves.
- Knowledge and attitudes about mental and behavioral health.
- A campus climate of support on-campus outreach.
- Self-care behaviors.
- Offering a helpline to peers.
Additionally, students who serve as peer supporters typically experience improved well-being. One research study found that peer supporters had a better sense of belonging at their institutions and used coping skills more after initial training and six weeks of participation as a peer supporter. At a time when students are reporting record levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness, peer-to-peer programs are more vital than ever. Bringing peers together with similar interests – to serve as peer supporters – creates opportunities for affinity and connection within the group and with the larger campus community.
Institutions can be proactive in establishing peer-to-peer programs and providing ongoing financial and administrative resources to ensure sustainability and long-term success. By doing so, institutions will enable student wellness and help them thrive in and out of the classroom.
Interested to learn more about how to fully support students’ mental health? Get more information about virtual health and well-being from TimelyMD.