Peer Counseling Gains Popularity As California Schools Beef Up Student Mental Health Services

As schools look for new ways to address student mental health amid the Covid pandemic, more are turning to a practice that costs almost nothing and, if done well, can lead to life-changing results for all involved: peer counseling.

For students who are leery of adults, peer counseling can provide a safe place to work through conflicts with friends, struggles with academics, stress, loneliness, family problems and even more serious issues, such as depression, that have become almost endemic among teenagers as the pandemic wears on.

In the past two years, the state has poured millions of dollars into programs to improve student mental health, which the U.S. surgeon general recently described as a national crisis. Even before the pandemic, students were feeling stressed due to social media, rising poverty and school shootings.

Peer counseling is among the initiatives the state has urged schools to undertake, along with hiring more counselors, contracting with local clinics that provide behavioral therapy, investing in social-emotional learning programs and establishing wellness centers on campus.

Peer counseling is perhaps the least expensive of the options. Typically, a student who needs help is paired with another student who’s been trained to listen and offer support. The pair might meet weekly for a semester or until the problems are resolved. The program is overseen by an adult counselor and a teacher, who meet regularly with the peer counselors to discuss communication skills, the importance of confidentiality and when to notify an adult about serious issues that arise, such as suicidal thoughts or abuse.

Some districts have offered peer counseling programs for decades and seen notable results, not just from the students who received help but from the peer counselors themselves.

But peer counseling programs must be well-run and the students well-trained, experts said, or the results could be disastrous. If a peer counselor mishandles a serious case, such as a student who’s suicidal, abuses drugs or alcohol or is in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship, the consequences can be dire for both the student who’s giving the counseling and the one who’s being counseled.

Josh Godinez, board chair of the California Association of School Counselors and a counselor at Centennial High School in Corona, led a peer counseling program at a previous high school where he worked. As a teacher there, he trained peer counselors to help their classmates identify the problem, come up with solutions and explore various courses of action.

But overall, peer counseling can be a very effective way for students to work through problems and learn empathy and communication skills, Godinez said. In fact, he was so inspired by the peer counseling program at his former school that he went back to college to become a counselor himself.

Clovis West High School near Fresno has had a peer counseling program since the 1980s. Lori Hurley, the teacher who oversees Clovis West’s peer counseling program, said up to 200 students a year receive help through the program. They either sign up themselves or are referred by teachers, counselors or their parents. Especially during the pandemic, the program has played a valuable role in helping students readjust to in-person school and cope with other stresses, she said.

“Students are more willing to talk to someone their own age, someone who knows what they’re going through, what it feels like,” Hurley said.

Excerpted from “Peer Counseling Gains Popularity As California Schools Beef Up Student Mental Health Services” in EdSource. Read the full article online for more details.

Source: EdSource | Peer Counseling Gains Popularity As California Schools Beef Up Student Mental Health Services, | © 2022 EdSource

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