UNB students in need of mental health counselling will soon have an alternative — their fellow students.
The Mental Health Peer Support Group is a collaborative effort launching in March between the UNB Student Union and UNB Counselling Services that is designed to get people in touch with a friendly face when they need it most.
“Studies have shown that students are much more likely to speak to a peer about mental health problems than a professional,” said Rice Fuller, director of counselling services.
“The idea is not to train students to be counsellors themselves, but to equip them with tools that will make it more likely that they can identify and respond empathically to friends and peers who are struggling,” he said.
“Also, to provide them with knowledge about resources available on- and-off-campus and skills that increase the likelihood that they can make a successful referral to those resources.”
The Support Group, which will operate out of the CC Jones Building, will be a casual, non-committal environment for students to get advice or merely relax. Lee Thomas, UNBSU vice-president internal, said that while all the peer counsellor positions are currently filled, even coming to visit would contribute to the positive atmosphere.
“The best way for people to get involved would be to come and support us, even if they just want to hang out,” she said. “The more students who feel comfortable being in an area where that service is being offered, the better it is.”
A program that has been adopted by over 200 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada and championed by the U.S. based Suicide Prevention Resource Center, the Mental Health Peer Support Group has been in the works for some time.
“I’ve known about this program for a couple of years but have struggled to get it off the ground,” said Fuller. “It’s become a reality through the hard work of the UNB Health Outreach Program, in particular Katie Baba, Lee Thomas, and Kathleen Pye, our Mental Health Strategist.”
Thomas said that while some students are willing to approach professionals for advice, many believe they have nowhere to turn.
“We see this as a supplement for people who might not need to see a mental health professional regularly, but just want to talk to someone,” she said.
“As much as we want to believe there is no stigma in talking to a mental health professional, there is — and that makes a lot of people hesitant to reach out.”
For Fuller, his hopes for the future of the program involve training hundreds of students as peer mentors over the next few years.
“After four years we could have 400 students, ideally more, on campus who have received this specialized training in how to support their peers,” he said. “I believe this would make a tremendous difference in the capacity of the UNB community to support students in distress.”