College creates student-led mental health educational program to build support

By ABIGAIL CHANG

The Office of Health and Wellness Education will introduce Mental Health Peer Educators (MHPE) next fall.  This initiative aims to further discussion, support and guidance surrounding mental health at Middlebury. The office, which added several new positions this school year, has been working on the MHPE program since last summer.

“There has been a steep increase in requests for counseling appointments and interest across campus in discussing mental health,” Madeline Hope, assistant director of health and wellness education, said in an email to The Campus.

The new program will rely heavily on student members who will be responsible for attending weekly group meetings and conducting peer listening hours, among other activities.

Peer listening hours, which will allow students to seek support from peer educators during 30-minute sessions, are still under development, but Hope specified that they will not be the same as counseling. The office has not yet finalized the role of confidentiality, according to Hope.

“We are still working out the details of peer listening hour confidentiality, but before the group goes live in Fall 2020, these details will be shared with our community,” Hope said. “It is my hope that we can offer a safe and private space for students to be heard.”

Becca Gorman ’20, the former student government association health and wellness director, said she believes the program will be useful to students who have not yet been able to see a professional or are unsure if they should, and could serve as a resource for those who cannot access certain mental health resources for financial or insurance reasons.

Gorman is currently one of the presidents of Active Minds, a club that promotes increased discussion about mental health. Last year, Gorman participated in a focus group about mental health resources on campus. She said that some of the group’s participants proposed the idea for peer mental health advocates.

Hope believes that peer education makes information more accessible and ensures that the programs remain conscious of student needs.

Students interested in becoming mental health peer educators must fill out an online application by March 2 and will be interviewed. Selected students will then undergo training in the fall. Online information about the program estimates a four-hour time commitment per week, though Hope says she anticipates peer educators will have some lighter weeks.

Hope is looking for applicants who are passionate about tackling mental health issues and are ready to both listen and lead. She also noted the importance of representing a variety of voices in the program, encouraging queer students and students of color to apply.

The MHPE program will join existing student-led education programs including Sex Positive Education for College Students (SPECS) and MiddSafe, which are completely student-run, and Green Dot, which is run by the school with student involvenment. 

Although they will have some overlap with MHPE as programs providing peer support, MiddSafe advocates and student residential life staff cannot join the initiative. Hope cited conflicting fall training times and the potential for burnout and compassion fatigue.

“I think our community is longing for more ways to speak openly about mental health and MHPEs can be a part of meeting that need,” Hope said.