As schools look for new ways to address student mental health amid the Covid pandemic, more are turning to a practice that costs almost nothing and, if done well, can lead to life-changing results for all involved: peer counseling.
For students who are leery of adults, peer counseling can provide a safe place to work through conflicts with friends, struggles with academics, stress, loneliness, family problems and even more serious issues, such as depression, that have become almost endemic among teenagers as the pandemic wears on.
In the past two years, the state has poured millions of dollars into programs to improve student mental health, which the U.S. surgeon general recently described as a national crisis. Even before the pandemic, students were feeling stressed due to social media, rising poverty and school shootings.
Peer counseling is among the initiatives the state has urged schools to undertake, along with hiring more counselors, contracting with local clinics that provide behavioral therapy, investing in social-emotional learning programs and establishing wellness centers on campus.
Peer counseling is perhaps the least expensive of the options. Typically, a student who needs help is paired with another student who’s been trained to listen and offer support. The pair might meet weekly for a semester or until the problems are resolved. The program is overseen by an adult counselor and a teacher, who meet regularly with the peer counselors to discuss communication skills, the importance of confidentiality and when to notify an adult about serious issues that arise, such as suicidal thoughts or abuse.
Some districts have offered peer counseling programs for decades and seen notable results, not just from the students who received help but from the peer counselors themselves.
For Christopher Gonzalez, 31, of Jurupa Valley near Riverside, being a high school peer counselor had a profound influence on his life, he said. He initially sought out peer counseling when he was a freshman in high school because he was struggling with his parents’ divorce. The process was so helpful, he said, that he signed up to be a counselor himself the next year.
He served for three years as a peer counselor at his high school, and after he graduated in 2009, he remained involved as an alumni adviser and later as a youth mentor in a local community program. The skills he learned — communication, listening, empathy — have benefited all aspects of his life, including his marriage, his relationship with his parents and his work as a hotel security guard, he said.
“Without peer counseling, I don’t know where I’d be,” Gonzalez said. “Before, when someone talked, I might brush them off. Now I take the time to listen and really hear what they’re saying. If there was peer counseling in every high school in the country, I feel we’d have fewer kids who are depressed, and I think we’d be in a much better place overall.”
In one instance, he counseled a classmate who was involved in a gang, drank too much and felt depressed. The classmate told Gonzalez he didn’t see any future for himself.
“He needed genuine care and time to get to the root of the problem,” Gonzalez said. “I was able to tell him, ‘Hey, you’re not alone, I’ve felt like that, too.’”
With Gonzalez’s help, the student pulled out of his slump. He’s now married, has children and runs a successful business. He and Gonzalez still keep in touch. “He’s thriving,” Gonzalez said. “I’m just so happy I could be there for him.”
But peer counseling programs must be well-run and the students well-trained, experts said, or the results could be disastrous. If a peer counselor mishandles a serious case, such as a student who’s suicidal, abuses drugs or alcohol or is in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship, the consequences can be dire for both the student who’s giving the counseling and the one who’s being counseled.
Josh Godinez, board chair of the California Association of School Counselors and a counselor at Centennial High School in Corona, led a peer counseling program at a previous high school where he worked. As a teacher there, he trained peer counselors to help their classmates identify the problem, come up with solutions and explore various courses of action.
“It’s so important, though, that the peer counselors keep in close contact with teachers and school counselors,” Godinez said. “A misstep could be a huge liability. At the end of the day, we want to make sure kids are safe, happy and healthy.”
If a peer counselor encounters a serious problem, they’re supposed to report it immediately to a teacher or adult school counselor. But gray areas abound: If a student is abusing drugs, for example, a peer counselor might be reluctant to “narc” on a classmate or violate a confidentiality agreement. Maintaining privacy between the student and peer counselor is also important, especially if the two know each other on campus or have mutual friends, Godinez said.
But overall, peer counseling can be a very effective way for students to work through problems and learn empathy and communication skills, Godinez said. In fact, he was so inspired by the peer counseling program at his former school that he went back to college to become a counselor himself.
He’s gratified to see the state promoting peer counseling and other districts establishing programs, he said.
“Legislators are looking for any avenue to support student mental health, and I celebrate that,” he said. “I am so happy to be in education at a time when the community is beginning to recognize the link between academic achievement and mental health and wellness. As counselors, we’ve been saying that for years.”
Clovis West High School near Fresno has had a peer counseling program since the 1980s. Baylee McPherson, a freshman, started peer counseling in middle school and is now enrolled in her high school’s program. It’s a 24/7 job, she said, but “I love it. I’d recommend it to anyone.”
McPherson is one of about 35 peer counselors at her school. She’s taking a class in that covers various scenarios, such as trouble with friends or depression, and different ways to respond. They discussed how to read tone and body language, what questions to ask, and when to notify an adult.
Peer counselors never give advice, she said. Instead, they ask what the student is hoping to accomplish, offer a few suggestions and let the student decide a course of action. Mostly, it’s about being a good listener, McPherson said.
“I think some students feel more comfortable talking to other students because we understand what they’re going through,” she said. “They think adults are just going to try to solve their problems for them or call their parents. That’s a big fear.”
Typically, McPherson sees one or two students a day, for about 30 minutes each, during the school day. They’ll either meet in an unoccupied classroom or walk around campus, or sometimes sit in a quiet hallway.
The work can be intense, she said, but the rewards are great.
“I get way more out of it than I give,” she said. “It’s taught me beautiful communication skills and coping mechanisms. I take better care of myself. I’ve developed bonds with people that won’t break.”
Lori Hurley, the teacher who oversees Clovis West’s peer counseling program, said up to 200 students a year receive help through the program. They either sign up themselves or are referred by teachers, counselors or their parents. Especially during the pandemic, the program has played a valuable role in helping students readjust to in-person school and cope with other stresses, she said.
The school has nine adult counselors on campus, but peers provide something adults can’t always deliver, she said.
“Students are more willing to talk to someone their own age, someone who knows what they’re going through, what it feels like,” Hurley said.
Six years ago the district saw a rash of student suicides, and peer counselors were key in helping students grieve and make sense of the tragedies, she said. The program also reduces the stigma associated with mental illness and seeking help when needed, leading to an overall more positive mood on campus, she said.
“We haven’t lost anyone during the pandemic, and I can honestly assume it’s because the kids care for each other,” Hurley said. “The program works because of them. Let them run it. Let them connect. Let them help.”
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