Mental Health on Campus: R.I.S.E. Helps Students
Peer Counseling Program Combats Stigma
Less than 150 miles away from Virginia Tech, where 33 students and faculty members were shot and killed in April, students at the University of Virginia (UVA) are moving forward with a peer counseling and education program. Taking SAMHSA’s “What a Difference a Friend Makes” message to heart, these students are helping to ensure that their peers have access to mental health resources and treatment.
SAMHSA sponsors the National Anti-Stigma Campaign, with its “What a Difference a Friend Makes” initiative, to encourage young adults age 18 to 25 to support their friends who are experiencing mental health issues. (See SAMHSA News online, November/December 2006.)
Faced with college friends who were dealing with mental health issues and general stressors, UVA second-year students Krystal Commons and Reggie White decided to create a program to help students reach out to their peers.
Launched in January 2007, Project R.I.S.E.—Resolving Issues through Support
and Education—assists black students at UVA who are facing issues such as depression
and anxiety. The program lets these students know that it’s okay to ask for help.
Observing the goals of the “What a Difference” campaign in action, SAMHSA recently invited the UVA project’s cofounders and student leaders to make a presentation at an in-service event at Agency headquarters, in Rockville, MD. This presentation allowed SAMHSA staff to learn about UVA’s peer-support effort introduced by young people—the targeted audience of SAMHSA’s National Anti-Stigma Campaign.
“Colleges and universities across the Nation are dealing with issues of suicide, depression, and high stress among their students, and, many times, students are afraid to ask for help,” said A. Kathryn Power, M.Ed., Director of SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services, which sponsors the campaign.
“In light of the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech, it’s important for college students to be able to express their concerns and to know that they can reach out to peers and mental health professionals,” Ms. Power added. “This program is an excellent resource because it helps young people support and encourage each other.”
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A Need for Peer Support
According to SAMHSA’s Anti-Stigma Campaign Web site, many young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 face mental health and substance abuse issues. The prevalence of serious mental health conditions among people in this age group is nearly double that of the general population; yet young people have the lowest rate of help-seeking behaviors.
Before creating the program, university and student staff conducted a needs assessment, surveying more than 200 black students at UVA to learn about the key issues that affect this population. The results of the assessment were illuminating.
With black students making up 8.5 percent of the UVA student body, the survey found that more than half of the students surveyed (57 percent) had considered dropping out of school because of personal problems. And 26 percent said they struggled with issues of personal identity.
But one of the most important findings revealed the places where black students were going for help. The survey found that 82 percent of these students turned to other black students for assistance.
The project’s faculty advisor, Warrenetta Mann, Psy.D., explained why college
students may not choose to visit treatment professionals. “What seems to be
most significant is the interplay between the student’s developing identity and
issues of safety/security and sense of self,” she said. “I think correcting
the myths and misinformation is a large part of what we do.”
Ms. Commons also noted the stigma attached to seeking professional mental health treatment. “It’s very taboo. We don’t talk about it,” she said. “What’s really important about SAMHSA’s Anti-Stigma Campaign is the encouragement for young people to talk about these things. That’s true for Project R.I.S.E., too.”
In fact, the very existence of Project R.I.S.E. shows students that there are others like them who may be struggling with the same issues. This can help students feel comfortable talking to peers or a professional and can help reduce stigma.
“It can be hard to admit that one is struggling,” said Dr. Mann, noting that UVA’s highly competitive environment can contribute to this difficulty. “By normalizing mental health issues in a way that makes it relevant to where students are developmentally, it allows them to consider examining their mental well-being as just another part of learning.”
Mr. White said students need to know that a support system is available. “Basically, we just hope to serve as a venue for discussion and support,” he said. “We don’t want students to feel isolated—like they’re alone with their problems.”
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Rising to Success
Faculty advisors in the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services branch,
Office of African American Affairs, and Office of the Dean of Students oversee the
program. However, the project is operated by a team of about 30 students who volunteer
Project staff members have taken advantage of SAMHSA resources, using the Agency’s
Web site during presentations to other student groups. Students have weekly
or biweekly trainings and review program activities with faculty advisors.
Student staff members immediately refer peers who need professional help—such
as those who may have suicidal thoughts—to these faculty advisors, who are available
24 hours a day.
“They need to be able to access us when they get in over their heads. We help them to spread the load,” said Dr. Mann. She noted that the university’s student leadership focus has been helpful for Project R.I.S.E. as the school’s very first peer counseling group. “This is the most wonderful student group to work with.”
Student staff members continue to provide a confidential, supportive, and encouraging environment in which their peers can express personal concerns without being judged. Peer counselors meet with students during walk-in and scheduled appointments, and project educators teach peers about mental health issues.
“We’re really working on the ‘pay it forward’ concept,” said Ms. Commons. She explained that this educational component is important because, as students are individually educated about mental health issues, the information can be spread across the campus.
In the space of just a few months, the group met with about 20 students. Peer counselors follow up with each student who is seen. The group also referred about five students to faculty or staff for help.
In addition, student staff members have expanded their presence on campus. “We were able to reach out to the Asian student population just to let them know, ‘We’re a resource if you need us,’ ” Ms. Commons said.
This extended reach fits into the group’s next goal of expanding the peer counseling and education program into other student communities of color on campus. “One thing that’s really important to us is developing leadership,” said Ms. Commons. “And training will be an important part of the program’s staying power.”
For more information on SAMHSA’s National Anti-Stigma Campaign, visit www.whatadifference.samhsa.gov.
To order SAMHSA’s brochures, What
a Difference a Friend Makes (English) and Un
amigo marca una gran diferencia (Español), call SAMHSA’s Health
Information Network at 1-877-SAMHSA-7 (1-877-726-4727) or 1-866-889-2647
(TDD). Request inventory number SMA07-4265 (English) or SMA07-4289 (Español).
Also see A Friend Makes a Difference: Anti-Stigma Campaign Encourages
For general information about mental illnesses, recovery, and related publications, visit SAMHSA’s Web site at www.mentalhealth.samhsa.gov.
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