When things get tough with your mental health, who do you turn to first?
I have always felt more comfortable opening up to a friend, colleague, or peer before reaching out to a professional, like a counsellor or psychologist. For a lot of us, this is the case for a number of reasons:
- Asking for professional help can be intimidating,
- Professional services come with wait-times,
- They can cost money,
- I don’t always think a professional could really “get me”.
I open up to my friends because I truly feel like they know me better. They have similar experiences to me, they know what shows I’m bingeing on Netflix, and we can do more than just sit on a couch and talk. They’re also just a text away!
The reality is, the number of Canadian university students seeking mental health support is 5 times greater today than it was 10 years ago. According to the National College Health Assessment 2016 data, 65% of Canadian students experience overwhelming anxiety, 46% of students are so depressed, they find it difficult to function, and 13% of students seriously considered suicide in the last year.
Knowing this, I have always wanted to know how to best support those around me with their mental health. In university, I volunteered as a peer supporter: a student that is trained to give one-on-one, non-judgmental, and confidential mental health support to other students. The organization I worked for offered walk-in hours, so students could come at their own convenience to chat with a peer supporter. I spent 2-4 hours a week speaking to students in distress or just listening to my peers who just wanted to talk.
Subsequently, we collected feedback from every student after their peer support sessions. 86% of students felt that talking to a peer supporter helped them with their mental well-being, 80% of students found the quality of the support they received was higher than other mental health resources, and 90% of students felt heard, understood, and respected.
While it is very important to seek out professional help when you need it, teaching peers key support skills is an effective way we can sustainably build more mentally healthy communities. I envision a world where our peers have the capacity and confidence to support one another with their mental health.
My name is Paula Barbaresso and I am a co-founder of the Canadian Peer Support Network: a non-profit that is dedicated to improving the mental health of Canadian young adults through peer support. We empower our peers to effectively support one another by sharing resources and offering online training on topics like how to be a better listener, how to maintain healthy boundaries, and how to evaluate a crisis and refer your friend to professional care.
Growing a non-profit from the ground up has been a learning experience. Finding ourselves amidst a global pandemic, the online accessibility of our resources became our top priority. We finished developing our website in October 2020, where we share resources and provide access to our training. We are also writing and are looking to publish a research-based guidebook on peer support, which has served as the foundation of all of our trainings.
We are always looking for passionate members of our community to join us on our mission. If you are interested in paving the way for a more mentally healthy and resilient Canada, please email us at [email protected]