Peer counseling at Harvard faces changes.
By CAROLINE CRONIN
Though the spring term seems to be passing us by at breakneck speed, last week’s respite from academic work perhaps allowed students to take a mental breather. For many, such a break is imperative to maintaining the strength to finish out the semester successfully. It is no secret that attending Harvard College, with all its mix of experiences, opportunities and challenges, is wonderfully transformative yet still mentally taxing. For this reason, the University has, in recent years, celebrated the plethora of mental health counseling and assistance available to all students. Many students on campus make it their mission to provide this counseling to their peers. Groups like Room 13, ECHO and SHARC help individuals with a variety of concerns.
The University administration plays a large role in the resources available. On the online version of the FAS Student Handbook, under the heading of ‘Peer Counseling’, it reads, “The Mental Health Service at HUHS, in conjunction with the Bureau of Study Counsel, oversees the training and supervision of five undergraduate peer counseling groups offering anonymous, confidential hotline and drop-in counseling throughout the academic year.” These five listed groups are Contact, Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach (ECHO), Peer Contraceptive Counselors (PCC), Response, and Room 13. To anyone younger than the class of 2017, PCC is foreign. They are, in fact, the group that is now known as SHARC – Sexual Health and Relationship Counseling. The name change was executed in order to reach a greater audience of students and to welcome a wider range of counseling needs. Nora O’Neill ’18, one of two Co-Directors of SHARC, states that outreach to students is a huge priority for the group. SHARC hopes to further this goal by transitioning to a Peer Education group. The change will mean that SHARC is less about students providing counsel and more about them providing resources and references to anyone who asks for them. O’Neill hopes that this change next year will better allow the group, “to go out into the community” instead of students having to “seek out counsel.”
This trend of outreach and inclusion has been one seen in many of the groups as well as the administration itself. The ‘Mental Health Service at HUHS’ is now called Counseling and Mental Health Services (CAMHS). The problem that this name change seems to address is the issue of stigma and alienation. The phrase ‘Mental Health’ can be daunting and conjure up images of an extreme variety, resulting in the alienation of students with concerns they themselves see as lesser, or different. Therefore, CAMHS and the student peer counseling groups work hard together to make sure students receive the care they need.
The exact nature of this working relationship varies by group. According to Cass Hastie ’18, of ECHO, “We receive some support from University Health Services and they help advocate for our funding and training resources. In this dynamic environment where mental health is justly becoming more prioritized, we hope the administration will continue to support our financial needs in order to accommodate the student body.” A specific financial need that ECHO and other peer counseling groups have every year is the need for meal funding during pre-term training. ECHO is one of the groups that relies on time spent before the semester begins in August to train counselors on the specific and complex issues within eating concerns. The dining halls do not open during this pre-term time and yet the University has not provided meal vouchers or other funding of the like. This can be a difficulty for any college student — but for those working to help their peers with mental health and eating concerns it may be especially troubling. Alex Graff ’17 and Rachel Talamo ’18 of Room 13 expressed the same concern: “During the 2015-2016 academic year, peer counseling was moved from Harvard College supervision to CAMHs supervision, and after that move, we lost some necessary funding, including money for food during training. That was a huge issue for us last August, and we’re currently looking at the same situation for this coming August, so we’ve asked the College for some extra support. They’ve expressed interest in helping, but we haven’t yet been able to secure the resources we need.” Room 13 is another of the groups that uses the training to ensure that peer counselors are able to make a real difference on campus. Frankly, it is unfair of the administration to expect these students to be able to do so but not provide adequate support.
In this changing environment on campus, the admirable work peer counseling groups do is equal to the professional expertise available through Harvard Health Services. Connecting the two at all times in order to better the experience of college students is the goal of all involved. Hastie confirms, “Peer counselors, like all people, are constantly adjusting to climates and events however it is hard to say how that impacts our responsibilities. As various events come up, we prepare ourselves to deal with any and all concerns and think about how we can best support the student body.” But to be able to reach that goal, the administration must be willing to fulfill the physical and financial needs.
Caroline Cronin (firstname.lastname@example.org) applauds the peer counselors and hopes that their dedication will continue to help Harvard college students.