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New pilot project harnesses peer support to boost mental health services

The $2 million Health Canada initiative will help a handful of institutions better support students’ well-being.


Demand for mental health services has long outstripped supply at Canadian universities, and COVID-19 has only made matters worse. Research shows that since the pandemic began, disorders related to anxiety and depression have risen across the country, particularly among postsecondary students. With school counselling teams typically overwhelmed and under-resourced, help is often delayed.

But all along, a largely untapped resource has been hiding in plain sight, one already being leveraged at some postsecondary schools in Canada and elsewhere to provide more timely and often more meaningful help: peer support from those with lived experience of mental health challenges. The pressures of being a postsecondary student, such as completing classwork, living away from home, balancing a part-time job, even substance abuse – plus the added hardships caused by the recent pandemic – can feel more manageable when shared with an understanding and empathetic fellow student who has been through a similar experience.

A new Health Canada initiative called Campus Peer Support is directing $2 million toward enhancing institutions’ abilities to harness peer support in order to respond to students who are experiencing mental distress. The project is being led by the Canadian Mental Health Association and piloted over the next three years at five postsecondary institutions: the University of British Columbia, Medicine Hat College, Trent University, the University of New Brunswick and the University of Prince Edward Island.

“Student mental health has been a concern for quite some time. When you layer on the pandemic with its additional stressors of social isolation, rapid change, uncertainty and remote learning, it made circumstances so much more difficult for students,” said CMHA national program manager Bonnie Lipton-Bos. “We’ve seen the transformational impact of connecting with a peer who has similar experience, who can relate to you, where there’s no power dynamic, where there’s the ability to build trust and connection that’s authentic.”

How it works

The CMHA is building on its own expertise in peer support and studying similar programs in other regions – Ms. Lipton-Bos says peer-support initiatives are more common in Australia and the United States – to create a project framework that is evidence-based, collaborative and fair to participating students. The five participating institutions were selected out of several public- and private-school applicants that met a range of criteria, partly meant to ensure a diverse range of institution types and geographic locations. Each is partnering with their local CMHA chapter and the national organization to develop a curriculum for student peer supporters.

Training for peer supporters will take place at the institutions this fall. It will be delivered via live sessions, self-directed learning and practice labs, and will focus on topics such as ethics and boundaries, trust-building, creating welcoming spaces, interpersonal communication, self-care, resilience strategies and responding to crisis situations. Participants will be paid roughly $17 per hour for their work, which may take place one to one, in groups or online, according to the situation at each institution. Other students will be recruited and paid to study the project once it’s underway and to report on its efficacy. The data will be used by the schools to refine their approaches, and to help secure additional government support as the pilot project nears its end date in 2025.

More timely support

In his 18 years in counselling services at UPEI, James Reddin has seen first-hand the rise of mental health issues among students, and how they have been amplified by COVID-19. Most days, he says, he and the three other counsellors in student affairs are fully booked. Since the focus must be on helping those with the greatest need, the longest delays are experienced by students with problems that are less severe, but still pressing in their own way, he says.

“Right now, if somebody is feeling down or feeling anxious, or they’re just not believing in themselves, they may have to wait 10 days to see me,” said Mr. Reddin, a senior counsellor. “Or if they’re saying, ‘I’ll never finish this paper,’ and they call in for help, and they’re told somebody can help you talk about that in 10 days, that doesn’t help if the paper’s due in eight days.”

Mr. Reddin created and ran a peer support program at UPEI about a decade ago. But with many other job priorities to juggle, he lacked the time or tools to sustain it. He sees this opportunity to participate in the project as vital to providing stepped mental health care: students can access different tiers of help according to their specific needs, rather than having to first resort to a psychiatrist, psychologist or counsellor, personnel who are more costly for institutions and so are typically in shorter supply.

“We’re going to see an increase in people being able to get short-notice help,” Mr. Reddin said. “There will be people students can meet with once a week, who are trained to listen and care, who know about resources, and who also know what it’s like to be a student and struggle with your mental health.”

Centring lived experience

At the University of British Columbia, the project is helping to strengthen the expertise and expand the capacity of the Student Recovery Community, which already uses peer support to serve students struggling with drugs, alcohol or other addictions. Created in 2019, this first-of-its-kind program in Canada is open to a range of healing pathways, from abstinence to harm reduction (the CMHA considers the latter a best practice and made it a requirement for participating in the project).

Program co-ordinator Jennifer Doyle and her manager currently operate the SRC with a handful of volunteers, providing one-on-one and group meetings to more than 150 students. The project will enable them to hire five peer supporters.

“We are definitely feeling the need to bring on additional staff so that we can grow and support the community in a meaningful way,” Ms. Doyle said. She values the opportunity to build a relationship with the area’s local CMHA chapter, so her team can refer students to more external resources, and so graduates requiring additional help can smoothly transition to care in the community.

The project’s biggest strength, she said, is how it centres the voices of those who have experienced mental health difficulties, which not only supports the one receiving the help, but the one giving it.

“Oftentimes, those who are struggling with mental health issues or addictions, the stigma and bias around those issues can really make a person feel like there’s something wrong with them,” Ms. Doyle said. “This is flipping that on its head and saying, ‘No, you actually have something really powerful and wonderful to offer. This life experience can help others.’”

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