Why student support groups are a key part of the campus mental health puzzle

November 30, 2018

At universities across the country, mental health services are in more demand than ever. But getting effective help doesn’t always require going to a therapist.

Student peer mentors, pictured, facilitate support groups as part of a pilot program launched by the Office for Student Engagement and Counseling and Disability Services.

Seeing a licensed therapist is still the bread-and-butter service of most campus counseling offices. But as more students seek out mental health care, many universities — including UM-Dearborn — are experiencing consistent wait lists for non-emergency appointments. That’s led many counseling offices to experiment with expanding their menu of services. It’s partly about keeping up with demand, said UM-Dearborn Counseling and Disability Services Director Sara Byczek. But it’s also about giving students more — and often better — options tailored for their specific needs.

One of the things Byczek said recent research shows is that students are more likely to reach out to their peers before they’d seek out a therapist. That’s especially the case for many of the most common student mental health needs, like relationship issues or class-related stress. Because of this, Byzek said it only makes sense to figure out creative ways to enable students to support other students.

This so-called “peer mentor” approach to mental health looks different on different campuses. But when Byzek and Blake Bonkowski of the Office for Student Engagement teamed up to pilot a peer mentor program here, they were drawn to the model of student-run support groups. The idea is fairly straightforward: Students would get together on a regular basis to discuss whatever was on their minds, with the discussion facilitated by a trained “mentor” student.

The obvious difference from therapy, Bonkowski said, is there’s no licensed professional in the room who’s directly focused on helping you build a prescriptive plan for tackling your needs. With a support group, the value is derived more from the opportunity to get things off your chest, listen to each other and learn from common experiences. But in a lot of cases, he said, that’s all someone really needs.

“One of the things we see is that a lot of students think their issues aren’t serious enough to where they need to see a therapist,” Bonkowski. “But we all have ‘stuff,’ right? So this is about giving students a way to get support that’s probably more appropriate — while simultaneously leaving a spot open in therapy for someone who really requires that service.”

Over the summer, Byzek and Bonkowski trained a dozen student peer mentors in essential skills for facilitating support groups — like how to encourage sharing from all members and redirect a group member who’s inclined to “play therapist.” The mentors also learned how to spot the warning signs of more serious mental health needs, so they can direct students to the counseling office or emergency services when necessary.

Five groups have been running since September, offering once-a-week, one-hour sessions. Psychology senior Heba Dabaja was among the first to sign up as a peer mentor, and she said her group has already developed a strong roster of regulars. In hers, students have used their time together for things like venting about family issues and learning how to cope with the stress of giving in-class presentations. As a co-facilitator, she said one of the trickier things to navigate is where to draw the line on giving advice — given that no one in the group is a therapist.

“This is definitely not an advice-giving group, but it can be a fine line. Like, when it comes to family stuff, I’ve noticed people generally just listen. But we’re all in school, so we all have school-related stress, and people might have some really great ideas for dealing with that. In those cases, though, instead of saying, ‘Does anyone have any advice?’ we might say something like, ‘Has anyone had a similar experience?’ That way, you keep the conversation focused on sharing and listening. It’s subtle, but it makes a difference.”

Dabaja, Byczek and Bonkowski all agree the next step is to figure out how to get more students to give the new program a shot, given the stigma around mental health is still a big roadblock. But Dabaja sees some hopeful signs that the student-run support groups might be an easier sell than traditional therapy.

“We have to work hard to make the distinction, because when people see ‘support group,’ they still think therapy,” she said. “But I tell them, ‘No, there are no therapist; we’re all just college students — just like you.’ You tell someone that, and you see their hesitation start to fade away.”