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Across higher education, colleges and universities are tapping their student population to support learners, in part because counseling staff can’t accommodate the high levels of demand, but also because students prefer it.
“Peer support is the No. 1 way students seek emotional support,” says Bob Booth, chief care officer at the telehealth provider TimelyCare. “It serves as a crucial initial step in seeking help, effectively dismantling the stigma surrounding mental health care.”
One of the reasons students turn to peers is they may be looking for someone who can empathize with their situation, or their concern doesn’t seem “important enough” to warrant professional help, Booth explains. TimelyCare launched an online service allowing learners to connect with peers this year, and data have shown the top reasons students turn to peers are to discuss relationships, depression or anxiety.
There are a variety of national organizations with student chapters on college campuses—including Active Minds, the Jed Foundation, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, RADical Hope and DMAX Clubs. But some institutions have created their own avenues for student leaders to serve as mental health ambassadors to their peers, providing educational information or one-on-one support.
- Le Moyne College—Building Resiliency Among Peers
Students at Le Moyne College in upstate New York can serve as mental health ambassadors on campus and to local high schoolers after completing a one-credit course that addresses changing habits, growth mind-set, cognitive reframing, empathy and mindfulness, among other topics.
The peer ambassador program, Dolphins Spreading HOPE!, will launch this month and run through spring 2025, dependent on grant funding. Ambassadors will lead informational sessions, participate in panel discussions and offer guidance on wellness topics, working three to 10 hours per week for pay.
- University of Alabama at Birmingham—UAB Enterprise Mental Health Advocate
The University of Alabama at Birmingham offers badging for community members to certify they are a mental health advocate, offering students tools to support their peers or refer them to appropriate resources.
The UAB Enterprise Mental Health Advocate Program has three levels that stack on one another with an opportunity to become a fellow, which includes mental health first aid training. Students can complete all modules online, connecting to their Canvas dashboard.
- California State University, Fullerton—TitanWELL Hutters
At CSUF, the office of student wellness, TitanWELL, has a mobile extension office run by certified peer health educators who provide peer-to-peer education on health topics. The hut is open multiple days per week around campus and helps students identify what resources they may need, and it puts on regular programming such as visits from therapy dogs, HIV testing and programming on LGBTQ+ topics.
Peer health educators receive certification from NASPA’s BACCHUS initiative and interact with their classmates through games and activities, posting regular updates on their location and programming via Instagram.
- University of Miami—COPE Peer Educators
The University of Miami offers students an opportunity to support their peers and have hands-on experience in counseling as a COPE Peer Educator. The program has four goals: to promote emotional well-being among students, to raise awareness on college mental health stressors, to provide education and resources, and to increase awareness about the Miami counseling center services.
COPE Peer Educators receive training and mentoring from counseling staff, attend weekly meetings and establish programming initiatives in their cohort. Students can gain leadership experience on the COPE executive board and get to impact campus culture around mental health.
- University at Albany—Middle Earth Peer Assistance
Students at UAlbany, part of the State University of New York system, can receive critical assistance using a hotline that connects learners in crisis to a trained student volunteer. The Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program is designed to help outside typical hours (late nights and weekends), and the confidential service can address a variety of issues, including academic concerns, substance use or abuse, sexual and gender identity, and adjusting to college life, or just provide an ear to listen.
Students also serve as peer wellness coaches, offering short, free confidential counseling sessions to students. Coaches help students identify and set goals, discuss ways to improve or maintain well-being, and may provide referrals to full-time staff members in campus offices, if necessary.
- Harvard University—Contact Peer Counseling
Harvard offers special peer counseling geared toward undergraduate students in the LGBTQ+ community who are looking to discuss their identity, experiences, gender, sexuality and relationships. The confidential service provides a space for students to share, get health resources or pick up safer sex supplies.
The service is drop-in, with two counselors available during open hours on site or via phone. Peer counselors complete an online application, interview process and commit to providing affirming care for LGBTQ+ students.
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