Section: Opinion

Proposed changes impede Peer Counselors’ potential to help

I am a sophomore Peer Counselor (PC). As a student, I have witnessed two years of drastic policy changes. These changes, relating to liability and student independence, have left me and others feeling powerless.

The year started on a strange note for the PCs when we found out that our student organization had transitioned without our knowledge from a student organization to a “departmental group,” under the jurisdiction of the Counseling Center. That change meant we lost a great deal of autonomy in how we function as an organization, such as being able to reserve spaces for small groups and our Winter and Fall Blues concerts on our own. This loss of autonomy has continued throughout the academic year.

In what seems to be an ongoing trend, Kenyon’s administrators have proposed a change that will impact student health and well-being with little opportunity for student input.

The proposed changes include: Starting next year, PCs would lose the ability to run student-led support groups discussing issues ranging from anxiety to body image, the use of a 24-hour emergency hotline, and confidentiality. Students can use the hotline to get instant, in-person help, as opposed to using a national hotline in which direct help is not feasible.

Given that these are the most important duties of the Peer Counselors, the organization would essentially be rendered obsolete without taking into consideration those whom the Peer Counselors serve: the student body. This would eliminate a service that helps to keep students from falling through the cracks in this high-pressure environment. This sends the message that our ability to provide immediate help to our peers takes a subordinate role to the College’s other priorities.     

PCs serve the student body as volunteers, intended as supplementary support for the counselors. We are trained extensively in issues of Title IX, protocols involving campus safety, de-escalation techniques and how to address mental health problems ranging from addiction to race-related trauma. This training took place when PCs came early over the summer for Title IX training and continues each week at our hour long meetings. There are six overbooked counselors for the entire student body.

Director of Cox Health and Counseling Center Chris Smith denies there is a problem with the a small counseling staff. In a Collegian interview on Feb. 15 about the inaccessibility of counseling services, Smith said, “I have heard that, but from our data, that is not actually a problem … the fact is mental health issues are growing exponentially on college campuses, so as many staff as we throw at it, we will have just as many students to fill that … Once again, we are not a level-one trauma center.”

There are people who are more comfortable talking to a peer who has confidentiality before reaching out to a professional. Without the PCs, it is possible that these students could go without any counseling services. Despite this, PCs ultimately encourage everyone to seek counseling as well as support from other peer groups.  Kenyon’s website quotes Patrick Gilligan, the previous director of counseling services, saying that with such a high number of students seeking mental health help, it makes sense to empower students. “Students want to help and are in the best position to help,” he said on April 14, 2014.

Over the past year, incidents like The Good Samaritan controversy have caused students to feel increasingly alienated from each other, the administration and the College itself. This makes student organizations like the PCs, SMAs and DAs all the more important. Students deserve to help define what kind of community we occupy.

Administrators involved in this decision refuse to acknowledge the overwhelming good that comes from having a network of trained students ready to respond to their peers when counselors are not accessible face-to-face. The PCs were founded on principles of compassion and community in response to serious incidents involving a lack of access to and knowledge about counseling services.

It is our responsibility and right to exist as an organization with a reasonable level of autonomy, working with the counseling center to prioritize student health and wellness.

Chloe Hall ’20 is a neuroscience major from Millburn, N.J. You can reach her at hall1@kenyon.edu.

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