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Future of Peer Counselors uncertain

Future of Peer Counselors uncertain

The Peer Counselors (PCs) may lose their confidentiality, their 24/7 hotline and their ability to run small mental health groups starting next semester. 

The director of the Cox Health and Counseling Center Christopher Smith told the student leaders of the PCs about these proposed changes before spring break. Some PCs criticized the changes, claiming they would curtail the organization’s ability to help students struggling with mental health and emotional issues.

These changes come at a time in which college students are seeking mental health treatment at record numbers, according to a March 19 TIME Magazine article.

“What are we without our groups, without our phone and without our ability to contact people in an anonymous way?” PC Brooke Kohn ’18 said. “I feel like that just scraps the PCs.”

Smith said he values the PCs, but he wants to clarify their role on campus. He said the PCs are supposed to “reduce stigma around mental health and connect students to resources” and he worries their current activities verge beyond these responsibilities and into clinical territory.

“Mental health relates to clinical issues and without the proper training, even in trying to do good, you can do harm,” Smith said. He said the reevaluation was not prompted by any one incident of harm, but rather the concern that harm could be inflicted. He hopes the proposed changes will help PCs delineate between clinical issues, which only the licensed counselors on campus are trained to help students with, and non-clinical issues, which anyone can help with. 

“The Peer Counselors don’t have the education, the training or the experience that our professional clinicians have,” Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Bonham ’92 said. “I think they can be really helpful from a peer education standpoint and promoting various health and wellness activities for students, and also act as a conduit between students and the health and counseling center.”

Kohn said the PCs don’t consider themselves professionals, but they help students who are experiencing challenges that may not warrant therapy or who feel uncomfortable going to the counseling center. 

“Counseling’s a very intimidating thing,” Kohn said. “It wasn’t until I hit my absolute rock bottom that I personally sought out counseling, and that’s because I felt like there was nothing else I could do. Not everyone needs to get to rock bottom to get help.”

The PCs are often a “first line of defense,” Cat Von Holt ’19, who is a PC, said. They offer mental health services that land somewhere between going to a friend and going to the counseling center.

The PCs undergo three days of training before the school year starts and they attend continual training sessions during the year. Kohn said they are trained to refer a student to the counseling center when it becomes clear that student’s struggles are clinical.

Because the PCs are  a departmental organization, as opposed to a student organization, Smith said their activities should be geared toward supporting the counseling center rather than taking on counseling responsibilities themselves. Their position as a departmental organization also means they are subject to the department’s decisions about their activities.

“They report to us, we fund them, we guide them,” Smith said. “So ultimately their final decisions have to be filtered through us, but we’re willing to hear them out as partners.”

If the proposed changes are implemented, PCs will have to report all of their student interactions to the counseling center. Though the counseling center has not decided what form these reports would take, Smith said the goal is to inform counselors of any clinical issues students have.

“When clinical things come up, for the sake of safety, we would rather be aware of those things,” Smith said. “Maybe they don’t progress from there but we at least want to be aware of them and let our clinical professionals make the decision about what follow-up, if any, looks like.”

If the PCs were required to report all of their interactions, “we wouldn’t be serving the role that we are serving now,” Von Holt said. “Essentially we would just be eyes and ears for the counseling center.”

Some PCs said the administration has been limiting their activities since the beginning of the year. The administration changed the PCs from a student-run organization to a departmental organization housed under the counseling center at the beginning of the year, according to Hannah Wendlandt ’19, who is one of the student leaders of the PCs.

Smith next informed the PCs they could no longer publicize their personal phone numbers in October. “That was frustrating for us because being accessible is a huge part of what PCs do,” PC Cat Von Holt ’19, said

The latest proposed changes have been the most drastic, Kohn and Van Holt said. They do not understand why these decisions are being made.

“[PCs] are saying, ‘Hey, I want to be that person you can call when you’re having a panic attack who can sit with you,’” Kohn said. “Standing in the way of that seems like it’s just worrying more about a legal issue than it is worrying about quality of life.”

Smith said he connects issues of liability to greater issues of safety and responsibility. He wants students to be as safe as possible, he said.

Several alumni have called the College to express concern about the future of the PCs, according to Smith.

Aaron McIlhenny ’16, who used PCs during his time as a student, said he is less likely to donate to the College if the PCs are curtailed in this way.

“If it weren’t for the Peer Counselors and their ability to provide compassionate, confidential care to supplement the overburdened counseling center, I definitely would not have been able to graduate on time,” McIlhenny said. “Why would I donate to a school that no longer is what it was to me?”

Smith said no final decisions have been made. He is still engaging in an ongoing conversation with the PCs and hopes to sit down with them as a group soon.

Von Holt said the PCs want to emphasize that their group will not be changing until next year.

“None of these changes would go into effect until next year,” Von Holt said. “For the rest of the semester, PCs are exactly as they have been, and we’re still here for people and we will be as transparent with the student body as we possibly can.”

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