Sarah M. Schenk
AUGUST OF 2020, I ARRIVED IN NEW YORK CITY to begin my studies toward an MA in Clinical Psychology. I had calibrated my expectations toward a different university experience, one in which the COVID-19 pandemic prevented in-person classes, social gatherings, and greatly restricted access to campus life. The isolation and the difficulties associated with the unprecedented circumstances have led to an increase in mental health problems among the student population. Before March 2020, the exacerbation of university counseling and psychological resources by the growing mental health struggles within university student populations had become a well-known reality. The pandemic has only amplified this treatment gap. My experiences at Durham University in the UK as a trained peer supporter have been incredibly meaningful to me and to others, and present an under-utilized, non-pathologizing, accessible resource for university students in the USA.
Under Durham University’s collegiate system, students are allocated to different colleges irrespective of their Majors. Their college, like St. Aidan’s College, St. Chad’s College, or John Snow College, acts as the communities they are housed in for the duration of their studies. The undergraduate student body within each college forms the Junior Common Room (JCR), with some undergraduates assuming roles of responsibility across a JCR’s various committees, including the Welfare Committee. Welfare officers (from here on referred to as peer supporters) are non-professionals trained in active listening skills who hold daily contact hours. During these in-person hours, students can talk to peer supporters about anything and everything – from roommate quarrels to experiences of suicidal ideation – in a confidential, non-directive, non-judgmental environment. Peer supporters do not aim to treat symptoms or crises – in other words, to replace a therapist’s role. Rather, to be visible and accessible points of needed community support within the space between everyday life and a therapist’s room.