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How Peer Support Can Increase Student Mental Health

A number of great interventions for improving student mental health have been gaining recognition lately.  Among them, increased mental health services in schools and universities, links to off-campus therapists, anti-stigma campaigns, and numerous efforts at raising awareness of mental health issues.

One helpful strategy for improving mental health that has not gotten as much attention as it deserves is peer support. A number of peer support programs are popping up across the country and throughout the U.K. and Canada, with the aim of filling some of the gaps in mental health support for university students. Particularly on campus where counseling staff and other providers struggle to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for mental health services, peer support is another tool to help students cope with stress and anxiety.

State of Emergency
About 13% of young people suffer from mental health issues ranging from anxiety and depression to ADHD and other disorders that can impact them well into adulthood. While some stress is normal, youth ages 15-19 experience the highest rates of emerging depression of any age group. These issues are often exacerbated by the move from high school to college. Recent research has uncovered the fact that 6% of undergrads and 4% of grad students consider suicide while attending university.

How Peer Support Can Help
In the mental health world, peer support programs allow individuals who have already experienced a high level of recovery, to assist others who are not as far along on their journey. Peer supporters use their experiences and successes to help others navigate mild mental health issues. The idea behind peer support in universities is similar. Connecting with peer supporters or mentors can help students feel less alone. It is natural for young people to reach out to friends when they are struggling, but if one has just moved to a new city to attend college, it can be easy to feel swept up in a sea of new faces. Peer support can ground new students and give them a sense of familiarity, someone to ask when they have questions, or even just someone to vent to when they feel overwhelmed. Those who have received support can later return the favor by helping other students. This creates a support network that can benefit everyone involved.  

Peer support can be particularly helpful in the case of first generation college students whose parents are not as adept at offering support as they move through the maze of financial aid paperwork, online course registration, dorm room selection, and maneuvering around campus (or even a new town). Is such cases, peer support can make all the difference. Having the ear and support of someone who has experience with university life and who also understands the stress factors unique to a college student can be reassuring and beneficial.

Making Mental Wellness a Priority
Demand for mental health services is at an all-time high. The evidence is clear: we are experiencing a mental health crisis. The more resources young people have available to them, the better their chances of overcoming anxiety and depression. While peer support cannot replace the help of an experienced mental health professional, it can help ease the stress of transition and provide an extra level of support for individuals struggling with anxiety. Reaching out to others is an important step toward greater wellness. 

Eileen Wynne PhD

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