New research from Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and the University of Maryland indicates that for college-aged students a lack of social support from friends and family is correlated with suicidal thoughts and behavior. The study, which tracked 1,085 students during their four years at college, also highlighted the value of screening students for depression, as it helps identify those at high risk. This research wasn’t available in 2005, but that didn’t stop the counseling staff at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), based in central Massachusetts, from partnering with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to create a different kind of peer-to-peer education program.
WPI is not unique in its efforts to create a cohesive, caring community in which all students feel connected, but meeting students where they are can be daunting for a counseling center. With initial funding from SAMHSA, the staff at the WPI Student Development and Counseling Center sought to reach out to students and train them to reach out to their peers by creating a peer-to-peer program called the Student Support Network (SSN), which launched in March 2007. While the program requires six weeks of training, the students are not required to assume formal roles, lead groups or host meetings following completion of the training. The goal of the program is to raise awareness and knowledge of common mental health disorders and gain valuable skills and strategies for helping peers at the first signs of a mental health crisis. Within months following the completion of the first SSN training in 2007, WPI’s counseling office saw a 24 percent increase in the number of students seeking counseling services.
The program teaches students how to recognize and respond effectively to the signs of mental health distress and suicide ideation among their peers. Since the initiative began, more than 300 student volunteers have completed the six-week training program. While participation is voluntary and students do not receive compensation or credit for their work, most of the students who complete the program remain committed to being a part of the SSN community on campus; one that cares, connects and helps those struggling with emotional issues.
Participating students enhance their personal skills, including listening, supporting, providing empathy and encouraging help seeking. The training emphasizes consulting with professional resources when concerned about a friend’s well-being and often, during these consultations, students are supported in helping their friends connect with appropriate resources. SSN trained students are successfully connecting their friends in distress with professional help and ultimately making a positive impact on overall student safety and well-being.
An added benefit of the SSN training program is the opportunity for counseling center staff to connect with student leaders who have a passion for helping and creating positive change. Many SSN trained students want to do more after completing training and are channeled toward other peer education programs on campus. WPI has several very active peer sexual assault prevention programs, a five star Active Minds chapter, peer education for alcohol and drug abuse prevention and an innovative peer-mentoring program for students with social skills deficits. All of these programs are fueled by the energy of SSN trained students seeking to do more on campus. Students are the most important allies in our efforts to enhance student safety and well-being. Programs like WPI’s Student Support Network and Screening for Mental Health’s DORA College Program provide excellent guidance, training and support for many students' natural inclination toward helping friends in distress and being advocates for positive mental health on college campuses.
Both WPI's Student Support Network program and SMH’s DORA College program are listed on the Suicide Prevention Resource Center/American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Best Practices Registry.