Features Editor, Ally Addison, highlights the good work of Peer Support, a student-run committee that aims to increase awareness of mental health issues and bring together the St Andrews community.
Since COVID-19 struck at the beginning of last year, loneliness has been on the rise. The need for mental health schemes is now greater than ever. In St Andrews, the Peer Support group, a Union subcommittee overseen by the Director of Wellbeing, is doing a heroic job at fulfilling this much needed role. Though a small committee, they work extremely hard to put on events such as Can Do chats, mental health workshops and Safe Spaces with the help of a team of ‘supporters’, who are paired via a rigorous matching process with students who sign up for the scheme. The main aim of the service is to provide one-to-one support to those who are experiencing loneliness, or who simply want to chat. Ultimately they want to foster a connected St Andrews community, where no one feels left out.
These “supporters”, student volunteers in second year of undergraduate studies or above, have to undertake a four to five hour training day, run with the help of Student Services, where they build on their active listening skills so as to maximise their potential to help the students they are matched with. One of the things they learn is not to force advice on anyone; as students, they are not qualified to preach remedies for mental health issues, and as such they should be there as a friend, not as a therapist. Another piece of advice that ‘supporters’ are given is to not be afraid of big silences. Often, especially in one-on-one chats, people are scared of pauses and so they interject with something random and meaningless to fill the gap. In fact, silence can be a good thing as it allows you to gather your thoughts and communicate your problems straight from the heart.
The matching process that Peer Support uses is rigorous. Once they have signed up, students seeking help from Peer Support have to let the Coordinator know what their interests are, what they enjoy doing, where they are from and so on, so that the committee can find as suitable a supporter as possible. They are currently working on recruiting more postgraduates, a demographic that is often left out of such schemes.
Once the matching process is complete, it is up to the supporter and the student they are paired with to do whatever they like. They may meet for a coffee, go and do some sport, attend an event together, or just have a casual, relaxed chat. Although in a sense the “supporters” can be described as ‘professional friends’ in that they are specially trained to be a friendly presence in someone’s life, the scheme is far from superficial. Some students, including a third year I interviewed (who wishes to remain anonymous) have continued with the scheme for over two years. Others just make use of a few sessions, or more commonly, the duration of first year, which is often the most challenging for making friends and settling in.
Sometimes the process of finding friends takes a bit of confidence. With this in mind, Peer Support seeks not only to provide students with someone to speak to in the short term, but also to help them to find long-term friends, for example by going to social events with them.
For others, it is not so much the social aspect of university life that they find hard, but the academic side of things. The Peer Support “Study Buddy” scheme is great if you struggle to find the motivation to study or else you simply like to have someone to keep you company when you are working. The same student I interviewed remarked that being matched with someone in the year above him who also studies physics was very useful, as they were able to answer specific questions and provide encouragement whenever the workload felt like too much.
Peer Support not only provides help to individual students, but it also works with student clubs and societies to ensure that they are paying attention to the mental health of their members. Sports clubs in particular can often fall prey to a toxic culture that generates exclusion and insecurity.
Peer Support is not without its problems, however. One issue that the committee has encountered is the shortage of male supporters, which they think has something to do with the stigma against men having open chats about personal or emotional issues.
Coronavirus has also proved problematic for the committee, with the transition to online events affecting them just as much as any other student group. In normal times, they would be running all sorts of in-person events, but now they are limited to one-on-one chats via Teams. On the other hand, a lot of people actually like the privacy that Teams provides, where meeting up in person can feel intimidating.
When asked whether the university itself ought to do more to combat mental health issues, rather than leaving it to student-run groups, the same committee member remarked that, given the University’s money and power, it is unfair that it is left to students who are already over-worked as it is to lay the groundworks for mental health support. However, she wishes to make it clear that this is a personal opinion and not the official line of the Peer Support committee.
A problem common to all universities is that it is exceptionally hard for students to get appointments with therapists, as there tend to be very long waiting lists. It is critical that the University makes up for this limitation.
St Andrews prides itself on its student satisfaction rate, which has played no small part in allowing it to rise to the top of the UK league tables. Nonetheless, this does not mean that we should neglect mental health schemes. The steady stream of students signing up for Peer Support is a testimony to the fact that, with or without Coronavirus, university life is difficult, both from a social and academic perspective. Their work is invaluable and their innovative schemes and events serve as a model for what can be achieved by a small group of university students.