As schools and communities struggle to find other ways to support young people’s wellbeing amid a pandemic-fueled mental health crisis, some believe part of the answer lies in the makes students help other students.
The basic idea behind these peer support programs is simple: they rely on trained students to offer a listening ear to those who reach out, provide direct mentoring and advice, or identify struggling students. and help them connect with adult or professional resources.
Many people – especially students – want to see more licensed mental health experts in schools, but finding enough trained professionals takes time and money. And while peer support systems aren’t meant to replace adults who are trained and equipped to handle serious problems, they can be a first line of early intervention and empowerment – although experts point out that research on their effectiveness remains limited.
There is no shortage of peer support programs to evaluate and the tools used to deploy them are evolving to become more professional and accessible in an increasingly digital world.
An example is that of Seattle teen link, a toll-free phone line established in the 1990s that has since expanded to online chat and text messaging. Teens can talk with a trained teen volunteer about anything that comes to mind and can call or log in from anywhere in the country.
Stella Ruebel is a high school sophomore who lined up at Teen Link for over a year because the program resonated with her values. “I struggled with different mental health issues throughout my childhood…and knowing that people helped me with my mental health, I want to help others now,” she said.
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Many students are ready to take on these roles. Currently, the line has 58 teen volunteers, including 18 new ones.
“One of the coolest and simultaneously heartbreaking things to see was that around March-April 2020, interest in volunteering with Teen Link just skyrocketed,” said Zanny Shehata, Volunteer Coordinator for Teen Link.
Teen Link stands out for its longevity, accessibility and broad reach; the line received more than 2,533 calls, texts and chat messages last year, and teens can talk with volunteers about just about anything – like how their day went or even a new episode of their favorite TV show.
One of the benefits of peer support is that students who do not have a trusted adult in their life may be more comfortable asking for help from a peer. According to the 2021 Washington State Healthy Young People Survey, about 13% of eighth graders in the state said they had no adult to turn to when they felt sad or hopeless. This number jumps to 15% for 10th and 12th graders.
“There’s something really special about being able to reach out and know that the person who picks up the phone is going to be someone your age,” Shehata said. “Just generally having more peer support options in the community removes a lot of the stigma…of seeking mental health support.”
There is a wide range of peer support methods, including mentoring programs designed to keep children in school and carrying out peer-to-peer academic and leadership programs aimed at solving specific problems. such as substance abuse and suicide prevention.
Maggie Sibley, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, has developed a program that provides targeted peer support to freshmen struggling with the transition to high school.
The pilot program trains 11th and 12th graders to perform basic interventions – helping with schoolwork planning and navigating new social dynamics – to reduce the risk of dropping out. Only one Seattle high school participated in the program last year, but Sibley hopes to expand a few more next year.
According to the 2021 Washington State Healthy Young People Survey, about 13% of eighth graders in the state said they had no adult to turn to when they felt sad or hopeless. This number jumps to 15% for 10th and 12th graders.
A research study published by Sibley a few years ago showed that students skipped class less often and felt more confident or positive about their schoolwork and school community — the exact results she hoped to see.
Sibley hopes to eventually track students’ academic performance throughout high school, as well as socially and emotionally.
But overall, there isn’t a lot of data on the effectiveness of mentoring or peer support programs.
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Educators and others are experimenting with new ways to meet students’ mental health needs or reinventing old strategies.
Last year, researcher Mina Fazel analyzed studies from around the world on peer mental health programs in schools. The Oxford University professor’s findings indicated that students trained to be mentors – not those who receive the mentorship – clearly benefited.
The analysis did not indicate there was a risk of harm to the students being mentored, said Fazel, who is a professor of adolescent psychiatry, but it shows there is not enough data to determine whether peer-to-peer school programs significantly improve overall mental state. welfare.
“At the moment we don’t know if it’s useful, period,” she said.
Since the results show that peer support programs have benefits for the mentors or peer leaders themselves, she suggests that people provide these types of opportunities to students who might be struggling.
“Rather than saying ‘Oh, you need to be supervised,’ why not give them the training… and help them look after and mentor a child a few years below them, perhaps with issues similar to them,” she said. .
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Peer mentoring has its own challenges. Teen Link volunteers receive training and support from an adult volunteer on every call they take. But Shehata said not every call comes with a clear solution or fix, and the training volunteers receive is also aimed at helping them deal with this.
“From day one, we tell our volunteers, ‘You’re not expected to fix or solve anyone’s problems, we’re here to be a sounding board for people,'” she declared.
Assigning students roles in mentorship programs or other support programs could also have downsides, such as pairing them with someone they don’t feel totally comfortable with.
“There’s something really special about being able to reach out and know that the person who picks up the phone is going to be someone your own age.”
Zanny Shehata, a volunteer coordinator of Teen Link
That’s why, Fazel said, it’s vital for any school or community developing a peer-to-peer program to closely assess its impact and adjust its design accordingly. It’s also extremely important that schools and staff within them understand how to support what she calls “authentic social networks”, or the people that children naturally turn to when they think of something.
“Young people prefer to choose who to go to for help, but are there things we can do to make sure everyone at school feels a little more confident to listen to their friends?” she says.
Fortunately, interest in the mental health needs of young people is growing.
Federal entities like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration are focusing more on creating peer support options and including youth voices in evolving care systems. More and more grassroots organizations are offering virtual connections to those seeking help, which improves oversight of peer resource networks and connects them to established formal resources. Many also offer more vocational training, said Mike Pullmann, associate research professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
“We’re seeing a lot more digital remote options,” he said. “Definitely more scalable options.”
Virtual offerings like these could play a key role in improving access, which is especially helpful for young people who have limited resources. But Pullmann said that as many young people and children have been deprived of opportunities to socialize with friends throughout the pandemic, peer-guided support may be even more essential now.
“We tell our volunteers from day one, ‘You are not expected to fix or solve anyone’s problems, we are here to be a sounding board for people.’
Zanny Shehata, a volunteer coordinator of Teen Link
“There are so many young people whose social support networks have been disrupted,” Pullman said. “I think peer support can play a huge role.”
Ruebel, the Teen Link volunteer, thinks more states should have resources like Teen Link.
She said volunteering with Teen Link helped her support her friends.
“Instead of trying to relate what they’re saying directly to myself, I learned more about asking them questions about what’s happening to them,” she said.
Because at the end of the day, peer support doesn’t have to be too complicated or formal to have an impact.
Sometimes it’s as simple as saying hello, asking someone about their day, and really listening to what they’re saying.
This story about peer support programs was produced by The Seattle Times Education Labas part of the project “Supporting students: what next for mental health”, in collaboration with The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on educational inequality and innovation, The Christian Science Monitor and Education Labs at AL.com, The Dallas Morning News, The Fresno Bee, and The Post and Courier. Sign up for the Hechinger Bulletin.