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Leveraging Peer Coaching to Support Students’ Mental Health

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While the types of peer programs on campuses vary, they all have one thing in common: whether it’s the program’s main focus or a by-product of the work, peer helping and coaching can help support students’ mental health.

We already know the value in fostering a community of peer support. Beyond helping students academically, high-achieving student leaders in peer coaching roles can create relationships that become significant in college and beyond. The impact of these kinds of relationships can be far-reaching. The Blue Zones, for example, includes “The Right Tribe” among its nine ways to achieve the kind of longevity enjoyed by some of the longest living humans on the planet. It’s very clear that strong social networks and close relationships are key to overall health and happiness.

Although forging pathways to student success is at the heart of peer helping and coaching programs, whether by academic or co-curricular engagement, so is empathy. It is this empathy that can become a vehicle to support students’ mental health if leveraged correctly and conceptualized in a broad sense.

Destigmatizing help-seeking behavior

The effort to normalize help-seeking behavior for students’ mental health continues, amid an uptick in student demand and use of college counseling centers at many campuses across the nation. While it is concerning to some, others note it may be the positive result from initiatives encouraging students to ask for help and support.

While peer coaching is not an equivalent substitute for professionally trained counseling staff, the availability of peer coaching programs and the utilization of them by students can generally destigmatize and normalize help-seeking behavior in two ways. First, those peer helpers and coaches who are trained on campus resources, active listening skills, or identifying and referring distressed students are equipped to encourage students to seek additional support as appropriate. These “gate-keeper” student leaders are more prepared than the average student to assist, but it is also important to ensure gatekeeper support as well.

The second way peer coaching can support students’ mental health is the act of seeking and utilizing peer coaching is in itself a help-seeking behavior. The provision and promotion of these peer programs communicate to students that support is important, available, and that their peers are involved in making it happen. As students become at ease seeking and receiving the academic, emotional, and other support that comes with peer helping and coaching programs, they may realize a strength in letting others support their success and consider mental health help in this way as well.

Creating opportunities for connection

Peer programs also support student mental health because they create opportunities for connection. We already know that Generation Z values relationships, but meeting new people, making new friends, and getting involved in college can be daunting. Add to this the fact that “the loneliness epidemic” has practically become a public health issue and college students are not exempt from the experience. Emery Bergmann illustrated this in her video about her freshman college transition, which went viral with over 36,000 views and appeared on “The Today Show.”

Speaking about mental well-being and success to InsideHigherEd, NASPA President Kevin Krueger notes that “when a student connects to campus and develops a social life, they do better academically.” Likewise, Sarah Van Orman, USC’s associate vice provost for student health shares that peer programs like TrojanSupport are “valuable because they increase help-seeking behaviors and feelings of connectedness among students.” The opportunity of peer programs to help students feel connected to campus and to other students cannot be overlooked or undervalued.

Many peer programs can also be considered “outside the classroom” experiences. They are often one-on-one, personalized, informal, and can happen anywhere on or off campus. Led by peers rather than administrators, the environment of these programs allow students to engage with each other amid the backdrop of a structured program but in an organic and natural way that happens when students are around each other and just get to be themselves. The human connection this allows is not only positive for mental health, but also for related soft skill development and emotional intelligence that strengthens one’s social skills for the workplace.

Providing a mechanism of positive support

Peer helping and coaching programs allow institutions to provide another mechanism of positive support to students. Although campus counseling, advising, and other services are available, administrators know the struggle of managing wait times, session limits, or hiring more full-time staff. While they make headway the best they can and are foundational in supporting student success, peer programs can compliment, supplement, or serve as extensions of these departments as appropriate.

The positive encouragement, feedback, and support students gain from peer helping and coaching programs adds a protective layer to the student experience. Just as hiring a personal trainer can ensure success when seeking to improve one’s fitness, the support of a peer helper or coach for students can make all the difference in making strides to their goals vs. going it alone. The task at hand is not only obtaining an educational degree, but navigating the challenges and lessons that come along with that journey. Peer programs provide an extra mechanism of support to students for that road ahead and the presence of these programs throughout an undergraduate’s career can benefit their emotional and mental well-being.