Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a rising number of young people have shared the mental health struggles they face in their schools, homes, and communities. In fact, two-thirds (67%) of US college students say they have experienced a mental or emotional issue in just this past year.
In recognizing the importance of peer-to-peer counseling as a mental health tool for youth, Born This Way Foundation and the Mary Christie Institute completed an online research study of over 2,000 American college students to learn about the use, attitude toward, and impact of this resource.
We invite you to read our report Peer Counseling in College Mental Health, and check out our interview with peer counselors Sophie to learn more about her first-hand experiences.
Peer-counseling is defined as “receiving support for your mental health from a trained peer, not a friend.” As a peer counselor, what are the tools, skills, or resources you provide other students?
Sophie: As a peer counselor, I think that the most valuable resource I can provide my fellow students is simply a listening ear. Oftentimes, I hear from peers who I council that there aren’t many opportunities in our day-to-day lives as teens and young adults to pause, reflect, and feel the emotions bubbling inside us. By trying my best to provide a safe space for that, I hope that my peers are able to process their emotions in a healthy way and to de-stigmatize the idea that it is okay, and even necessary, to take breaks for the sake of mental health.
As more young people report mental health struggles, our research shows that interest in peer counseling has also grown – nearly half of students surveyed said COVID-19 pandemic made them more likely to seek out peer counseling. What kind of stressors are you hearing from youth who reach out, and what do you think this increased interest in peer counseling says about your generation?
Sophie: A very concerning pattern that I’ve seen among my peers who seek counseling is that the overwhelming majority of them feel a lot of pressure to ”be the best,” both from those around them and due to deep-rooted perfectionism. I think that this forces young people to put their physical and mental well-being on the back burner in order to channel all of their energy into achieving perfection.
I believe that this can ultimately be attributed to a common fear of failure among the members of my generation; a fear so great that we’re willing to sacrifice anything to ensure we meet our standards of success. However, I see the increased interest in peer counseling among young folks as a huge step in the right direction! Gen-Z as a whole is a generation of activists, change-makers, and pattern-breakers. We are overall much more comfortable holding tough conversations about mental health than previous generations have been, and I think that is because we have seen and experienced the dangerous effects of silence.
Our data shows that nearly 45% of students who provide peer counseling report “helping others” as their motivation. What experience/s in your life have motivated you to be a peer counselor?
Sophie: While I began my peer-counseling journey in hopes of helping create a climate of openness and support around mental health, peer counseling has benefited me just as much as it has benefitted my peers (if not more so.)
I’ve dealt with many mental health challenges throughout my childhood and adolescence, including facing a severe eating disorder that caused me to be hospitalized multiple times. A huge challenge that I faced after fully recovering was grappling with the question: “Who am I outside of my illness?” Treatment taught me how to survive and function in my daily life, but it never taught me how to build an identity, which I think is necessary in order to build confidence.
Peer counseling provided me with an outlet to strengthen my identity as a mental health advocate and allowed me to practice being compassionate to others so that I can learn to be compassionate towards myself. I tell this story to everyone I peer-council because I hope to inspire others to build their own identities as well.
As a high school senior entering college, do you plan on utilizing peer counseling as a resource, and why?
Sophie: Definitely! I am currently taking a gap year before college, and I moved across the country to a different state in August in order to pursue a new work opportunity. Prior to moving, I built a peer-support network so that I had people I could turn to as I navigated the transitions that came with moving.
I can say looking back that having my own peer-counselors and mentors made a world of difference in allowing me to feel confident as I faced these changes head-on. When I move to college next year, I will have to navigate a whole new set of transitions, such as being plopped into a completely new social scene, moving once again, and having new academic responsibilities. I hope that having peer support during that time will provide me with the same sense of confidence I feel now during my gap year.
Use of peer counseling is higher amongst Black, Transgender, first-generation, and Latinx students. As someone who identifies as Latinx, can you speak to the importance of identity + representation when it comes to peer counseling?
Sophie: Representation is absolutely essential when it comes to participating in peer counseling. Every community faces its own set of unique challenges, and it’s extremely important that those struggling with mental health issues have someone to talk to who understands those challenges firsthand.
I know from my own experience that mental healthcare professionals are often trained on how to support the recovery of those who come from majority backgrounds, but often lack the knowledge necessary to provide individuals from marginalized communities with culturally competent care. An example I like to give is from my own treatment: in learning how to feed myself, I was taught how to portion out burgers and apple pie, but was left clueless when it came to the foods my family actually eats, like tarta de choclo or milanesa. Looking back, peer counseling from someone who shared my Latinx background would have filled this gap and allowed me to feel seen.
Additionally, individuals from minority communities are much less likely to receive professional mental healthcare in the first place due to financial, cultural, and social barriers, so it is very important that marginalized communities have access to and information about peer counseling. Ultimately, there is nothing more powerful than having someone who shares your identity as a role model, mentor, and supporter.
Of the 80 percent of students who have not used peer counseling, 62 percent said they would be interested in doing so. For students who still may feel nervous about reaching out to a peer counselor for help, what advice can you give to encourage them to do so?
Sophie: Hey, I’ve been there. I know that reaching out to peers for counseling can be scary, not just because it means you need to be vulnerable and admit to someone else that you need support, but also because it means you need to allow yourself to receive for a bit, rather than giving into the tendency to always give, give, give until we burn out.
I want to remind you that above all, the reason it feels scary to reach out is because you’re doing something kind for yourself, and kindness always takes bravery. As young people, it is our responsibility to build a kinder and braver world, and reaching out to a peer counselor is a step towards that goal. You are kind, you are brave, and you have the power to change the world. This is a step towards recognizing that, and I am so proud of you for how far you’ve come.