Committee aims to create peer-to-peer mental health support

Under a proposal, students could seek mental health support from trained students.

Committee aims to create peer-to-peer mental health support

Kyle Stowe

A new University of Minnesota committee is proposing a peer-to-peer support network that would enable students to seek mental health support from student volunteers.

As part of an initiative to increase mental health resources for students on campus, the Student Mental Health Advisory Committee is developing a program in which trained student volunteers could help their peers deal with mental and emotional health issues in a low-stress environment.

“We’re trying to figure out a way to put together a peer support network to help some individuals who may be experiencing some difficult things that they may need a little advice on,” said recent University graduate Adam Moen, one of the committee’s leaders.

The proposal, called Peer Advocate Life Support, would also help students find recommended care options when needed.

Moen and Chris Luhmann, another University graduate, led the committee’s formation. They said they hope that if an alternative resource for students is in place, waiting times for the University’s other mental health resources will decrease.

“We were aware there were waitlists at Boynton [Health Service] and [University Counseling and Consulting Services],” Luhmann said. “It was really getting backed up.”

Committee leaders aim to partner with Boynton or another University office so the committee can get access to necessary resources, Luhmann said.

Boynton leaders heard the committee’s proposal last month. Chief Medical Officer Gary Christenson said they’re still considering the proposal among other mental health initiatives, including other peer-to-peer resources.

Christenson said Boynton is interested in developing a mental health advocate program similar to its Health Advocate program, where students provide support for common health issues in University residence halls.

The peer-to-peer plan is still in its developmental stages as leaders consider a possible physical location for the support network and look for financial backing.

“We’re still unsure of where this program will exist,” Luhmann said. “But it’s definitely something that’s on a lot of people’s radar.”

In forming its plan, the committee is looking for examples of peer-to-peer support networks at schools around the country, including the College of Charleston in South Carolina, which offers peer counseling services through its Counseling and Substance Abuse Services department.

The service includes a peer counseling hotline, walk-in visits and online chat support, program head Rachael McNamara said.

For the University’s plan, committee leaders proposed those services in addition to more extensive peer counseling services.

While McNamara said the program is working well at Charleston, she said they’re continually looking for ways to improve their peer counseling program.

“I’m never really satisfied,” she said.

Moen said his own bouts with depression while attending the University helped inspire the idea of forming a peer-to-peer mental health support network. After sharing experiences of his depression with friends, Moen said he recognized the advantages of getting support from his peers.

 “A lot of times we think we’re the only ones who experience the struggles we face in school,” he said, “but really, they’re quite common.”