New CDC data released last month revealed that more than 4 in 10 teens report feeling “constantly sad or hopeless”. The data reflects what parents and educators have learned intimately over the past two years: young people struggle with mental health issues. Unfortunately, schools tend to operate with little money, providing a “skeletal” system of mental health services. Some school psychologists and social workers manage workloads by thousands.
President Biden pledged more funds to deal with the crisis last month. Even before that, some states and districts had dedicated federal Covid relief funds to hiring more professionals.
These investments are smart and long overdue. But they may not turn the tide of a crisis that has been unfolding for long before the pandemic has begun. Although trained professionals are essential to address acute mental health challenges, they are not always best placed to detect these challenges early; nor do they offer the only way to prevent mental health problems in the first place.
For a better long-term system, schools should capitalize on a promising resource of mental health support surrounding students: their peers.
The power of peer networks is well documented in research. “Peers can often form a stronger therapeutic bond with the people they counsel because they themselves have experienced mental health issues,” wrote Nicola Davies, life science consultant, talks about the benefits of peer consulting. Positive peer dynamics have been shown to Support learning, prosocial behavior and socio-emotional well-being.
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But peer support is too often taken for granted by personnel and service-oriented decision-makers and administrators. This is a mistake, which some schools are actively countering.
For example, in Pomona, California, Garey High School operates a peer counseling center, which trains students to navigate conversations about mental health issues, recognize warning signs, and refer their peers to professional counselors. Other programs activate peers as advocates for people dealing with mental health issues. Bring change to mind possesses demonstrated success with student-run clubs to end stigma and raise awareness about mental health; the Health Information Project has trained more than 15,000 adolescent peer health educators to lead classroom discussions on issues ranging from depression to abuse.
Peers can also provide what researchers call “joint accountability,” encouraging each other to persevere in treatment — including treatment through high-quality mental health apps that could help large numbers of teens get better. they could access the apps and stick with them. Jean Rhodes, an eminent researcher in mentoring, has writing: “Engaging young people in mental health services has always been a challenge, and self-administration [mental health apps] are no exception. His lab has found that recruiting “non-professionals,” including peers, can dramatically increase engagement and adherence to high-quality online interventions.
Peer helpers offer something that professionals often cannot, and vice versa.
These models do not eliminate or compete with mental health professionals. Instead, they enlist their peers as close and credible messengers who are particularly attuned to the struggles of others. Peer helpers offer something that professionals often cannot, and vice versa.
For example, peer-to-peer programs can be a source of culturally sensitive support when colleges‘ and K-12 Schools‘Council staff are predominantly white. A MassINC survey group last october survey found that black, transgender, and first-generation students reported using peer counseling more often than other students and were more likely to prioritize finding a peer counselor with similar identities or life experiences similar to theirs.
Peers can also offer protection against mounting rate loneliness, a proven precursor to more serious mental health problems.
Promoting “connectivity” between peers is essential. Peer Group Loginfor example, is a school program in which older students meet regularly with groups of younger peers to strengthen their relationships and practice their academic and social skills.
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Other approaches challenge students to forge new relationships with their peers themselves. Two colleges recently found that Nearpeer, a platform that helps students identify potential friends with similar interests, specializations, and experiences, has increased students’ sense of connection.
In another recent study, Nod, an app that helps young people exercise their social skills, reduced feelings of loneliness among psychologically vulnerable students after just a few weeks of use. Nod is currently pilot in eight Colorado school districts with high school students, and is seeing promising early results.
Tools like Nearpeer and Nod are a refreshing break from traditional social media which, more often than not, to exploit loneliness than to fight it. Technology rooted in search and focused on connection and engagement, rather than clicks and ads, can increase healthy habits and prosocial behaviors, online and offline. Peers can be a source of lasting change.
From an accountability perspective alone, peer counseling and support models can seem risky. But the advocates of these models have students and families in their corner. About three-quarters of parents of a national survey agreed that students trained to talk about mental health with their peers would better understand the challenges teens face and increase the chances of teens talking about mental health issues.
Among college students, the MassINC survey found that one in five people already use peer counselling. And of those who don’t, 62% were interested in doing so.
Savvy education leaders with federal funds are aware of the risk of adopting staff-heavy “day programs” only to have to abandon them when the money runs out. Engaging staff in strategies that activate the power of peer networks can be an antidote and provide the fuel needed to foster long-term connectedness.
Chelsea Waite is a senior researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
Julia Freeland Fisher is director of educational research at the Clayton Christensen Institute.
This story about school mental health services was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Register for Hechinger’s newsletter.