Peer counselling in the works

Student-run program will offset long wait times at HCDS, says AMS vice-president

Julia Mitchell, AMS vice-president (university affairs) hopes the peer counselling service will be an extra resource for students.
Julia Mitchell, AMS vice-president (university affairs) hopes the peer counselling service will be an extra resource for students.

Starting in early November, long lines at Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) will no longer keep students from getting counselling.

The AMS-run Peer Support Centre will offer support and guidance in non-academic areas of student life.

The centre will be based on the second floor of the JDUC in room 214 and students will be able to drop in, call or e-mail to set up an appointment.

AMS Vice-President (University Affairs) Julia Mitchell’s experiences as a psychology student have put mental health issues at the top of her mind, she said, especially because people between the ages of 16 and 24 are most susceptible to mental health disorders.

“That was one of my main concerns … we’re most vulnerable right now to mental health illness, and there’s only so much we can do as a student government to help that kind of thing.”

Mitchell said because the wait at Health, Counselling and Disability Services can be up to three weeks, the Peer Support Centre will be able to help redirect those people who need to talk but who don’t necessarily need to see a professional.

Peer counselling was one of the initiatives Mitchell, Kingsley Chak and John Manning championed in their campaign for the AMS executive last spring.

The AMS has budgeted $2,000 for the project, $500 of which has been spent so far on advertising.

They are hiring eight to 10 volunteers around mid-October and training is scheduled for Oct. 28.

“It’s going to be a small group of volunteers … depending on how much need there is and how many people are interested in volunteering,” Mitchell said.

HCDS will provide the Student Support Centre with their contact information and Mitchell is compiling a similar list of resources across campus and in Kingston.

Mitchell said members of the AMS’s Mental Health Awareness Committee will also be helping her throughout the year.

She said a similar service, with the same name, existed a couple of years ago, but it didn’t last.

“They never planned sufficient enough training, and it was always really rushed, and no one organizing it really knew how much training they actually need,” Mitchell said. “I think in a service such as this you really need to make sure that the volunteers are trained.”

She said volunteers don’t need any experience, but they need to be interested and willing to help others.

“I probably could speculate that a lot of psych students are going to be interested in this—especially the ones who want to go into something clinical,” she said.

Volunteers will have to sign contracts to guarantee confidentiality and that they follow correct procedure.

Mitchell said the Peer Support Centre and its volunteers won’t be able to “fix” people’s problems in high-risk situations.

“They don’t have the education, they don’t have the background, they don’t have the research,” Mitchell said. “There are limitations to what we can say and get people to do.”

The counsellors will be available to listen to students’ problems and offer information about services at the University and in Kingston that might be able to provide further help.

“We have a confidentiality rule in that room,” Mitchell said. “Anything said in that room has to stay in that room. And it will always be just the person that has the issue and a volunteer. It will be a closed door session.”

Mitchell said the policy she wrote requires the AMS to do a mini-review of all the volunteers once they have begun counselling.

“If we ever got wind of someone not saying the right thing, or not following on procedure, we would definitely deal with that, either in a review or in some other formal process,” she said.

The AMS wanted to start small with the project, Mitchell said, because they don’t know what to expect.

“I don’t want to say that I hope we’re crammed and busy, because I hope that people are mentally healthy on campus. But if they aren’t, at least we’re here to help.”

Mike Condra, Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) director, said he has been in discussion with Mitchell for the last few months.

“I think it’s a good idea. There are many students who would use effective peer support to deal with day-to-day concerns and issues,” Condra said.

He said the counselling service at HCDS is set up so that students can typically have an assessment within 24 hours.

“If they need longer term counselling, the wait can be anywhere from 10 days to three weeks in high pressure times. But certainly they can be seen relatively quickly so that we can carry out an assessment and see if they need to be seen by our crisis counsellor,” Condra said.

He said HCDS won’t turn students over to the Peer Support Centre.

“I think once they’ve come here we would see them here and likely carry through with whatever they need,” he said.

Condra will be involved in providing some orientation about dealing with personal concerns during the volunteer training session. He said he will provide training with regard to low-level crisis assistance, as well as confidentiality.

But because this is peer counselling, Condra said, there’s no expectation that the volunteers will perform as professional counsellors.

“Part of their training will be on effective listening, how to provide support for somebody, how to direct people to the appropriate sources if they need them,” he said.

Because there’s so much information out there for students who are in need of help, Condra said, peer counsellors can be a resource leading to that crucial piece of important information. “A key part of any training in counselling work is ... how to direct people to the appropriate help.” Mike Ventola, ArtSci ’10, said peer counselling sounds a lot less intimidating than going to HCDS.

“It sounds like it would be something more informal that students would be willing to use,” Ventola said.

Ashley Mitchell, ArtSci ’08, said usually you expect a counsellor to be someone older and someone who is trained.

She said it might be a good idea if psychology students are hired as volunteers.

“I think that students are more biased, too,” she said. “I can’t picture … fourth-year students counselling younger students.”

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