Demand for college peer counselors is booming. But training only goes so far
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
As a first-year student at Boston College in fall 2020, Ella Snyder recalls feeling isolated and being anxious about the university's new COVID-19 safety restrictions.
"I was very worried about how I would make friends while also having to social distance," she says. "It was kind of like I was trying to figure out this impossible balance."
Walking across campus, Snyder spotted a flier advertising Lean On Me, a peer support network that hosts online, confidential conversations with students who have received about 30 hours of initial training, including crisis protocols.
Snyder signed up, sent a text and started to chat with a peer. She says the conversation helped her process her anxiety.
"It was just really nice to have my opinion validated," she explains. "I felt like a bad person for having questions about the COVID concerns, because obviously you want to respect the pandemic and not spread the virus but also it takes a toll on your own mental health, too."
During the pandemic, a nationwide crisis of isolation and anxiety has fallen particularly hard on young people – and more and more, those young people are turning to each other for help. In a new national survey, nearly half of college students said pandemic disruptions have made them more likely to seek out peer counseling, as Snyder did, including 20% who said it has made them "much more likely."
Researchers with the Mary Christie Institute and Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation surveyed more than 2,000 college students last fall and found two-thirds said they've faced a mental health challenge in the past year. One in five has already received peer counseling.
"Students want support from their peers," says Zoe Ragouzeos, president of the Mary Christie Institute. And colleges are eager to give them that support, especially at a time when college mental health providers are continuing to report overwhelming workloads and high levels of burnout.
But Ragouzeos warns peer counselors aren't always prepared to deal with crisis situations the way clinicians can. In the survey, 16% of student counselors said they weren't aware of emergency protocols if they become worried for another student's safety.
Of all the survey's findings, Ragouzeos says that one is the most troubling.
Peer counselors can't replace mental health professionals on campus
At Boston College, Snyder, 19, has moved from receiving peer counseling to providing it through Lean On Me. She says she has a lot of conversations about how the pandemic has impacted college life this year, especially during the omicron-driven case surge.
"It's a difficult transition period going from in-person to online classes, and then a mix of online and in-person this year," she explains. "So I think that kind of brought up a lot of different elements of change that students were not ready for."
Lean On Me's student leaders say the number of students seeking peer support has spiked during the pandemic. And last fall the number of confidential text messages expressing suicidal thoughts or self-harm increased, too.
Lean On Me's peer counselors have been trained in risk assessment, campus protocol and on- and off-campus resources, and their training continues throughout their service. When a student reaches out and seems to be in crisis, the network, which is not designed to handle crisis situations, connects them to professional resources or hotlines off campus.
But, as the survey shows, not all peer counselors are prepared to deal with students in crisis.
"It's imperative the students be uniformly trained," Ragouzeos says. "We want them to know what to do when they are encountering a higher-risk situation. The counseling centers need to be front and center in terms of managing these kinds of programs on their campuses. They know what to do if they are involved with a student who seems to need emergency support in that moment."
Mental health counselors on campus agree.
"We can't outsource this work to students who aren't trained in it," says Matthew Barry, an assistant director for community development with the counseling center at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
The school in central Massachusetts has about 350 trained peer counselors for its more than 7,000 students, but is still facing what Barry calls a mental health crisis after seven student deaths since July 2021.
"It's been a very difficult year for us," Barry says, choking up. "There's a lot of pain. A lot of people are hurting, and we're doing our best to try to help."
Looking forward, WPI administrators are pledging to provide more mental health resources, including additional peer support. In his role at WPI's counseling center, Barry recruits and trains about a hundred students each year for a support network that, like Lean On Me, refers crisis situations to a community hotline.
He says demand is high, but he thinks WPI can do more to increase mental health awareness among all students, not just peer counselors, so they're more likely to ask for help when they need it.
"Can we do a better job of putting it out there in a way that people will see it and digest it and hear it and take it to heart?"
Making it easier to reach out for help
At Boston College, Ella Snyder says her volunteer work has taken on new meaning since one of her friends, who attended another college, died by suicide over the summer.
"Every time I'm taking a conversation now, I try and keep in mind that maybe if something like that existed at his school, he wouldn't have been afraid to reach out for help, just because it's so easy and so confidential."