Counselors Couldn’t Keep Up With Our Growing Mental Health Crisis, So...

Voices | Social-Emotional Learning

Counselors Couldn’t Keep Up With Our Growing Mental Health Crisis, So Peers Stepped Up

By Amanda Novak     Mar 19, 2019

Counselors Couldn’t Keep Up With Our Growing Mental Health Crisis, So Peers Stepped Up

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Monday morning. I welcome students into the building with an optimistic smile on my face while teachers give an endless supply of high fives, and students yawn and find a corner to sit with their friends. The bell rings and I head to make my coffee, eager to hunker down and prioritize my tasks for the week. Before I make it to the coffee pot, I hear my name over the walkie talkie and off I go—without caffeine. A student needs me, and so it begins. By the time I return, two students are waiting outside my office and I’ve got two notes on my door. Before I know it, it’s Thursday afternoon and I’ve done little more than triage.

As an assistant principal with a social work background, my experience is similar to that of many school counselors and mental health professionals today. Between the influence of social media, the tragically extreme pressure to succeed and our fast-paced world, our kids need us more than ever—and yet, as we are stretched thinner and thinner, there is less support to go around. How do we address the mental health and social-emotional needs of our students with a severe lack of professionals available? At Westgate Community School, a K-12 school in Thornton, Colo., we responded to this dilemma by leveraging and training our student leaders to offer mentorship and mediation for their peers.

I became assistant principal in 2018, but served as dean of culture at Westgate for three years prior. I was originally hired in 2015, to support the only counselor at our school, which served 500 students at the time. Even when I came on and there were two of us counseling, it wasn’t enough to support that many students. When you have a 6-year-old coming to school hungry who doesn’t understand why he can’t eat dinner every night, a 12-year-old feeling isolated by her peers and wondering what life would be like if she had never been born and a 17-year-old trying to navigate FASFA so she can attend college, every student is a priority. But let’s be real, we could only do so much.

We had a capacity issue: too many kids needed support, but there weren’t enough adults or hours in the day to provide it.

We spent our days working with as many students in crisis as we could manage. Naturally, we prioritized students based on the extent of their needs, the level of risk they were facing and the degree of crisis they appeared to be experiencing. What we noticed, however, was that the students who were not in crisis initially, eventually entered a state of crisis because no one was there to support their needs in a timely fashion. This is where the trouble began for us and it turned into a vicious cycle.

We knew we had to get creative about how we offer resources to students. We needed to acknowledge the steep, and growing, demand for counseling services, and we had to create time and space for every student reaching out to receive support. Every student is fighting a unique battle, and every student is a priority.

Leveraging Students as Peer Mentors

Peer mentoring and peer mediation are not new concepts. In fact, I was a peer mediator when I was in high school, though truth be told, I became a mediator so that I could opt out of health class. I remember sitting in rows of desks with other mediators, practicing a script that was written for conflict resolution. We set norms and ground rules, we gave each person involved a fair opportunity to speak and we followed that darn script. That is not how we approach peer mentoring at Westgate.

So, what makes our peer mentor program so different? We intentionally select and educate young adults, we give them time and space to observe mental health professionals in action and ask questions and then we set them free to work with their peers in an authentic, unscripted way.

Over time, we’ve seen this approach prove effective. Take Jessica for example, whose eighth grade year was an emotional rollercoaster. Depression and anxiety consumed her, and frequent suicidal ideation left her constantly questioning her self-worth and her place in society. Jessica and I checked in often, almost daily. Sometimes she needed to practice basic coping or social skills, and sometimes, she just needed to take a break in a quiet place because a situation had caused stress. But other times, our meetings were less formal—she just wanted to talk about her dog or share her writing.

After our most casual meetings, Jessica seemed a little bit lighter, a little bit stronger and better equipped to take on the rest of her day. It occurred to me that creating a safe space for her to share what was happening in her life was perhaps the most important thing I could do for her—and it didn’t need to be me.

Many schools operate within rigid structures often driven by strict academic standards and tight schedules packed with instructional time focused on math and literacy, which simply leaves less time for authentic human interaction. Across the country, we have lost time in school to just talk to each other. We have become increasingly disconnected, and what Jessica needed on most days was authentic connection and relationship-building.

In December 2015, Jessica’s eighth grade year, we launched our peer mentoring program after five months of planning. We launched the mentoring program as a strand of our existing service learning course at our high school. It was a way for students to provide an additional service to our community and mentors would receive service learning credit toward graduation requirements. Service learning occurred as a scheduled class on Fridays, which allowed for consistent and reliable time and space for mentoring. Through an intensive application and interview process, we selected a handful of high school students who lived out values of compassion and integrity. They were strong listeners who cared deeply for their peers in the school.

We embarked on a journey that was quite vulnerable for me. Instead of giving these students a script, I resolutely believed that this group of mentors had the ability to lead the way. We wrote our own training program focused on developing listening skills, empathy, affirmation and mentee-led goal setting practices. We talked about the importance of self-care and discussed how to tell when it’s time to gently stop a session and report to a counselor. We explored issues related to confidentiality and setting boundaries, we watched and read Dr. Brene Brown—esteemed author, researcher, and expert in vulnerability and shame—and we role played for days. Mentors even sat in on counseling sessions to observe our counselor and I during sessions. As February finally approached and we were ready to start sessions, we spoke to the parents of all of our mentors to share about the work and get consent for students to begin mentoring their peers.

In the beginning, we intentionally selected mentees based on their need to speak with the counselor. The students that had sought us out for weeks, but had not gotten the chance to see us because of obvious limitations, were the first mentees to meet with a peer. We also selected students who we believed would benefit from weekly check-ins alongside some more formal work with professional mental health providers. Jessica was one of these students.

We paired her with an incredibly passionate junior named Katie. Katie and Jessica began meeting weekly and their relationship developed quickly. As we fell into the routine of mentoring, Jessica was leaving class less during the week to seek a counselor. Her school work improved, and she was more courageous in social situations. Like Jessica, many mentees started counting on Friday meetings and stopped running to the office throughout the week.

Our Program Expands to Serve More Students

Three years into our program, we now have 18 trained high school mentors, two senior interns leading the program and about 65 impacted students, 50 of which are meeting mentors on a weekly basis.

As our program has expanded, the process for identifying mentees has become more robust. As we demonstrated success, we began partnering with our special education department to enhance mental health services. Today, many of our mentees have peer mentoring written into their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 plans as a social-emotional accommodation or service, along with other mental health minutes in some cases. Additionally, peer mentoring has become our most effective Tier 2 intervention for behavioral Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), a national framework which identifies students who would benefit from targeted interventions, so some mentees are referred by our MTSS team. Others are recommended by parents or teachers based on their needs.

Today, Jessica is a sophomore, and she is a second year peer mentor. When she applied to be a mentor her freshman year, she shared how her experience meeting with Katie changed her middle school experience—she also shared that it may have saved her life. She didn’t have a consistent positive relationship prior to meeting Katie. She now considers herself an expert in middle school conflict and mentoring, and she spends her Friday afternoons talking with students that are on a very similar path to the one she once walked.

Jessica can relate to these middle schoolers in a way that I simply cannot. Peer mentoring has without a doubt shifted our school culture. We too often underestimate the power of peer interaction, and it is time we raise up our most powerful force to address mental health in our schools—our students.

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