There is consensus among mental health professionals — rates of mental health issues are increasing among college-aged students. Over 60 percent of college students struggle with at least one mental health issue ranging from anxiety, stress and addiction to eating disorders and the lingering effects of COVID-19, and the University is not exempt from these trends. In response to the growing number of students seeking help, the University’s counseling staff has almost tripled in size. Through a partnership with TimelyCare, students at the University can now receive 12 free counseling sessions, and 24/7 telehealth support has been made available through a service called TalkNow.
In concert with students, the University has also begun to encourage peer-to-peer support programs which supplement more formal endeavors and offer accessible, personalized and sustainable solutions to address the growing demands for mental health resources. The University and students have made commendable progress in addressing the mental health needs of our community, but work must continue to expand these peer-to-peer programs and to foster an ethos in which students are able to access and improve existing mental health resources.
It is clear the University is working to address its responsibility to help students struggling with various mental health concerns, yet it is ultimately limited in its ability as an institution to address all aspects of mental health struggles that students face every day. In 2022, a report from the Virginia Health Care Foundation found that demand for mental health services exceeds the resources available to provide students with sufficient help. Increasing professional resources is crucial. However, the University alone cannot provide the comprehensive and personalized support students may need. This is why peer-to-peer support is a necessary supplement to professional help — not only does it allow students to connect to others in their community, but it also compensates for the gaps where professional help inevitably falls short, creating a sense of solidarity by foregrounding shared experiences. While peer-to-peer support cannot replace professional counseling, it is a viable and valuable partner in the fight for improved mental health.
Driven by the importance of mental health awareness, students across different universities, including the University, are spearheading programs and clubs that advocate for reducing the stigma around mental health and providing support for their peers. At the University, Contracted Independent Organizations like If You’re Reading This, Active Minds and Lean on Me are leading the effort to promote mental health stories and spread words of encouragement. The collaborative efforts among the University’s students exemplify a laudable commitment to spreading mental health awareness through student-run programs. Such student-based efforts must be commended and expanded.
Students are not the only ones taking the initiative. The University has started to empower more peer-to-peer solutions like art therapy and group yoga, accessible through the Elson Student Health Center. They have even developed a course that students of all years can enroll in for credit — Hoos Connected. The class connects you with two trained peer mentors who guide discussions with groups of six to 10 students, giving the cohort the space to explore any topic of interest and get to know one another on a deeper level. The adoption of peer-based solutions throughout the University underscores the necessity of peer-based initiatives and programs.
Ultimately, however, peer-to-peer solutions are ineffective unless students feel a sense of commitment to the resources and to their ability to play an active role in their own mental health and the mental health of their peers. Playing such an active role in these peer resources, however, requires education on mental health issues, prevention and support. While the University offers educational peer support partnerships with professional programs, such as the Peer Health Educators program, these peer-based training programs are on the small side. The University should invest in the creation of an expanded educational peer mentorship program where student volunteers receive training on mental health awareness, listening and communication skills, crisis intervention and the ethical boundaries of providing support to peers. Programs like these would ensure more expansive knowledge transfer between students and increase student investment in existing peer resources.
The time spent at any university presents various challenges to emotional health and well-being, and the peers who surround us understand these sentiments better than anyone else. Although we students are adults, and are in charge of looking out for ourselves, it is important to recognize that self care includes letting others take care of you and taking care of others in turn. We must continue to advance peer health initiatives and normalize leaning on each other for support.
Anaïs Naish is a Viewpoint Writer who writes about Identity and Culture for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at email@example.com.