America’s youth mental health crisis: Peer counseling
America’s youth mental health crisis: Peer counseling

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One in five college students said they had received some form of peer support in the prior year, and almost 60% of them said it was helpful. Nearly seven out of 10 college students tell a friend they’re struggling with their mental health before telling anyone else. Clearly, peer interactions in higher education impact the way students get healthcare while they’re in school.

Educational research of more than 2,000 U.S. college students was conducted by Born This Way Foundation and the Mary Christie Institute. The report concluded that the COVID-19 pandemic is a major cause of increasing student stress, isolation, and difficulty in maintaining social connections. TimelyCare’s research also found that nine out of 10 students say there is a mental health crisis on college campuses. Clearly, there is an urgent need for additional student support.

Peer-to-peer support is a critical resource for minority students

A significant number of students turn to peers first when experiencing mental health and emotional challenges. This is especially true for students from minority communities. While nearly half of all students reported that disruptions caused by the pandemic make them more likely to seek out peer counseling, that number was higher among minority student populations.

Students are willing to talk to their peers about a variety of issues – 55% said they’d discuss stress with a peer, 48% said anxiety, 43% said depression, and 35% said loneliness. These numbers show the potential effects of peer networks to positively impact retention and student success.

Scaling campus mental health resources with peer-to-peer support

Colleges and universities should consider utilizing positive peer influence through peer-to-peer mental health programs to expand the reach of campus mental health services. A peer-to-peer program can be a valuable complement to existing campus mental health services, potentially increasing an institution’s capacity for mental health care. Therapy can be scary for some students, but peer counseling provides an option to confide in classmates, roommates, and friends who they may be more comfortable talking to about issues like relationships, loneliness, managing stress, and academic concerns.

A peer counseling program can remove a barrier to support for students who may not feel comfortable visiting their campus counseling center. Of the students who used peer counseling services, nearly 60% called it helpful. And, eighty-two percent of students who have peer counseling at their institutions understand that it’s able to serve students of various backgrounds and identities.

Using peer-to-peer support as an on-ramp to mental health support

Peer relationships on college campuses transcend barriers that typically keep students from beneficial support services. Peer-to-peer support programs operate with lower costs than models solely reliant on professional mental health staff, while offering one-to-one support to increase student success, health, and well-being. They also help to destigmatize the perceived complexity of mental health services, making care easier for students to access anytime, anywhere.

Peer-to-peer models expand the network of student support simply because of the number of peers available to help one another, in addition to full-time mental health staff. The value of a human relationship, whether with a peer or a licensed therapist or counselor, can make a significant positive impact on a student. However, student affairs professionals should recognize that while leveraging the benefits of peer support systems can alleviate the challenges students face getting the emotional and mental health care they need, that doesn’t mean these programs can undertake complex mental health challenges.

Rather than replacing staff roles with student workers, higher education leaders must constantly assess where peers have a distinct advantage as either messengers for key information, educators about resources, or providers of direct support. Where that advantage is absent and whenever students face particularly difficult challenges, peer support should remain supplemental to professional mental health care.

The qualitative study by Born This Way Foundation and the Mary Christie Institute found that 80% of peer counselors say they received, at minimum, a fair amount of training. Nearly half said they received a great deal of training. Fifty-four percent received training through their campus counseling center, while 29% said they received peer counseling training through an outside program. A smaller percentage (16%) underwent a mix of on-campus and off-campus training. These wide-ranging stats demonstrate the importance of developing clear policies and procedures around training so peer counselors are well-equipped to understand their support role, know how to respond to students who are in distress, and know when a student may need to be referred to a professional.

One example of an effective student learning program is offered by The Jed Foundation (JED) – a nonprofit that protects emotional health and prevents suicide for our nation’s teens and young adults – giving them the skills and support they need to thrive. They offer a peer learning experience called You Can Help a Friend – a workshop that equips students to recognize and respond to signs of distress in their peers.

Peer-to-peer support is critical for students

Bringing virtual health care and peer support programs together

With the pandemic, issues of racism, balancing school work, and increasing hate crimes, there is a greater need for support for student mental health. And students are turning to each other to augment services provided by schools. Research shows that peer-to-peer support is an effective intervention among college students. So, it makes sense that it can be an even more powerful tool when supported by virtual care services. A partnership by Active Minds and TimelyCare is one example of how peer support and virtual care can come together to enhance campus mental health support.

Active Minds, the nation’s premier nonprofit organization supporting mental health awareness and education for young adults, partnered with TimelyCare to expand the conversation about mental health and help create lasting change in the way mental health is talked about, cared for, and valued.

The Active Minds and TimelyCare partnership includes:

Grants for student organizations

To further peer-led advocacy and education efforts, TimelyCare will award grants to Active Minds chapters at colleges and universities nationwide where both organizations already have a presence.

Student-drive awareness

Grants will support student ambassador programs at each campus to generate visibility for and build student participation in the use of campus mental health resources, including TimelyCare’s 24/7 virtual care solution that is as easy and convenient as making a video or phone call.

Promotion of mental health

Together, Active Minds and TimelyCare will cross-promote, amplify and collaborate on content, programming, and allyship to raise awareness of student mental health and mental health resources, including peer-to-peer support and peer mentoring.

TimelyCare aims to improve the well-being of college students by making virtual mental health and medical care accessible. TimelyCare’s virtual care platform includes a range of services, including mental health counseling, on-demand emotional support, medical care, psychiatry, health coaching, basic needs support, faculty and staff guidance, and digital self-care content.

Contact TimelyCare to learn more about how we can support your peer-to-peer counseling initiatives and how we’re inspiring the digital transformation of campus health and the future of student care.

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