New report on mental health peer support programs in college calls for evidence-based guidelines in light of keen interest, lingering concerns
Counseling center directors’ survey shows near universal interest in some type of student peer support program
Engaging trained peers in some form of mental health support in college is an important part of a public health approach to the campus mental health crisis, but much work remains to ensure the practice is safe and effective, according to a new report by the Mary Christie Institute, commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation.
The paper, “Peer Programs in College Student Mental Health,” examines the history and landscape of peer support in a college setting, and includes a new survey of members of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) that showed that 94% of counseling center directors were interested in some type of peer support program, though concerns linger. Sixty seven percent said they believed the lack of standardized guidelines for peer support was important when considering these programs; 47% called this “very important.”
“Practitioners are eager to understand how peer support can be part of meeting student mental health needs on campus, but to offer these programs with confidence, we must have a greater knowledge of best practices and some level of standardization around critical dynamics like training,” said Zoe Ragouzeos, PhD, one of the report authors, Executive Director of Counseling and Wellness Services at New York University and Clinical Director at the Mary Christie Institute.
“We commissioned the report to help codify and strengthen the practice of peer support in college so that this highly accessible option can help more students who are struggling on campus,” said Sharon Shapiro, Trustee at the Ruderman Family Foundation.
Formal college peer support, where students confide in trained peers for mental health support, has become an increasingly common practice on college campuses for a variety of reasons. It is well documented that young people, when in distress, turn first to their peers. The increasing rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation among college students have elevated demand for clinical services that outpace capacity within counseling centers, bringing greater attention to the role of paraprofessionals in helping to address this problem. Experts say that peer support is an important part of a public health approach to mental health on campus, helping all students along the behavioral health continuum, acting as a bridge to care for hard-to-reach populations, and addressing problems before they escalate.
Despite these benefits, peer support in college is not without risk, including potential harm to both provider and receiver of services and liability for adverse outcomes. The lack of evidence-based efficacy data or standard definitions and guidelines among programs add to the risk. To ensure that peer programs are safe and effective, authors call for a multi-institutional effort to provide the guidance the field is currently lacking, including:
- Defining various peer support types with greater specificity and differentiating properties of each;
- Establishing standardized metrics to allow for greater comparison and benchmarking between programs;
- Directing a coordinated research effort with the purpose of providing evidence for standards and best practices;
- Elevating best practices within the domain of peer support and for each of its categories.
Other recommendations within the paper include: integrating peer support programs into campus wellness plans; coordinating and communicating the many programs that may exist for mental health and wellbeing; and encouraging students who lead peer support programs to seek institutional support and guidance even as they maintain their grassroots approaches.
About “Peer Programs in College Student Mental Health”
From April to July 2022, the Mary Christie Institute conducted 22 interviews with experts in peer support and mental health, researchers, counseling center directors, student affairs administrators, leaders of peer support programs, and students involved in programs on campus. Interviews focused on experts’ and stakeholders’ perspectives on peer support generally and specifically about different types of support, important dynamics to consider within the practice, how it might best be utilized within the context of college life, concerns about the practice, and how to best utilize it. Interviews were recorded and transcribed, and transcripts were analyzed for similar and overarching themes.
MCI conducted a brief online survey of counseling center directors on their views and beliefs about peer support, including concerns regarding prevalent types of support and their likelihood to support those variations at their own institutions. The survey, which was distributed through the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors listserv, was in the field from June 2022 to July 2022. Two brief survey participation requests were sent through the AUCCCD listserv. The survey garnered 57 responses, yielding a response rate of 6%. Survey respondents were members of the AUCCCD; the respondents were representative of the membership of the AUCCCD. Race and gender demographics were very similar to those of the AUCCCD’s 2021 annual survey.
About the Mary Christie Institute
The Mary Christie Institute is a national non-profit organization dedicated to the improved emotional and behavioral health of college students. Through research, journalism, convening and advocacy, the Institute informs and connects all campus stakeholders towards improved mental health and wellbeing outcomes for all students. For more information, please visit www.marychristieinstitute.org
About the Ruderman Family Foundation
The Ruderman Family Foundation is an internationally recognized organization that works to end the stigma associated with mental health. The Foundation does this by identifying gaps in mental health resources and programs within the high school and higher education communities as well as by organizing other local and national programming and initiatives that raise greater awareness around the stigma. The Ruderman Family Foundation believes that inclusion and understanding of all people is essential to a fair and nourishing community and imposes these values within its leadership and funding. For more information, please visit www.rudermanfoundation.org