Student-led mental health groups are important — with supervision

Student-led mental health groups are important — with supervision
© Pixabay

It’s no secret that college students have increasingly been reporting more mental health difficulties, including suicidal thoughts. Because university counseling centers and staff sometimes struggle to care for all the students in need, the students themselves have formed mental health support groups.

While there’s a lot to celebrate in regards to student-led mental health help initiatives across college campuses, such groups can have drawbacks, particularly if not overseen or supported by mental health professionals in some way.

ADVERTISEMENT
People with mental health difficulties often stay inside their heads and struggle with negative self-talk like a broken feedback loop on an internal recorder. Getting people with mental health struggles to become less isolated and take a more active role is a big and important step.

 

There are many reasons why student-led mental health support groups might work. They can provide students same-age peers with whom to socialize and a safety net to rely on. Students may find emotional relief and other benefit in sharing their illness experiences in such groups and successfully seek advice on new coping strategies. Spending time with college students with similar struggles can also provide inspiring role-models for recovery and living well with mental health problems.

Encouraging students with a lived experience of mental illness to tell their stories may also be a way of educating people about mental illness and reducing stigma. When we see that someone like us has struggled, this may normalize, or at least de-stigmatize our own pain. Student-led mental health support can also empower their members to move from passive recipients to active participants in their own recovery journey.

In addition, peers can serve as a vital resource, acting as a mirror in reflecting when fellow students are exhibiting an increase in psychological distress or engage in unsafe coping. At best, student-lead mental health support groups can bolster self-worth, instill hope, teach self-reflection, and break down stigma. And that’s all fantastic news.

But, as a licensed clinical psychologist, my concern is that peers on college campuses may not be suitably trained and managed. It makes sense that college students prefer to confide in their peers, rather than go to the office of a mental health professional. The former likely feels less hierarchical and non-judgmental. Talking to one’s peers also doesn’t carry the associated stigma, shame or cost of formal services. There, however, may be some unforeseen risks.

Self-help groups are different from peer services under the supervision of professionals. Informal grassroots groups, particularly for late adolescents and emerging adults, may provide misleading or inaccurate information, weaken or intensify poor boundaries, and lead to group member burnout.

It would likely be better to formally train and manage student-led mental health clubs and turn them into true peer-services. Peer-delivered groups or services are those delivered by individuals with a “lived experience” of mental or substance use challenges.

Mental health peer support has become formalized through the development of core competencies and standards. These positions require selection, specialized education, training, certification and ongoing support in order to ensure that they are of good quality.

Such peer services are abundant in our country. Peers with lived mental health experience are increasingly becoming an integral component of health care systems in some states and even in some settings throughout the U.S.

For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs has deemed peer support such an important component in the promotion of mental health recovery, that they have implemented these services nationally. In addition, workplaces are also implementing peer support services or “wellness champions” to assist employees in managing daily stress, encouraging appropriate coping strategies for negative emotions, and linking folks to community resources.

There’s some data to show that peer groups are associated with improvements in social support, clinical symptoms, and coping. However, there are still few randomized controlled trials, the gold standard for testing the efficacy of an intervention, to test the effectiveness of peer support. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be engaging in peer support. If proven definitively to be effective, these groups could certainly be cost-effective and have far-reaching implications for delivering mental health support and services on college campuses and beyond.

One of the biggest advantages of peer support is that they can act as an entry point to the mental health service system. The underutilization of mental health care is a significant problem in our country. Peer support can facilitate patient engagement in formal mental health treatment and lower dropout rates. Peer support can also be critical in overcoming attitudinal barriers in seeking formal treatment.

For example, if a person you admire tells you they are in psychotherapy and it is helping them make important changes in their lives, you may be more willing to accept a referral and initiate treatment. Peers can provide such information as well as direction on how to enroll in needed healthcare.

Student-led mental health groups or peer-services are surely a valued-added component of care, but they require further training, oversight, exploration and evaluation. They should not, however, be seen as a competitor to formal mental health services. Peer supporters and licensed health care professionals should work collaboratively to offer client-centered services that aid mental health recovery as well as enhance choices, independence and well-being.

Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.