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Peer-to-Peer Support: Promoting the Well-Being of Higher Education Students 

Peer-To-Peer Support: Promoting The Well-Being Of Higher Education Students

Table of Contents

Summary

College students face overwhelming mental health challenges. Traditional support is limited. Peer-to-peer programs connect students for shared experiences, boosting well-being. Learn how these programs can help and the innovative solutions offered by Oasis Education.

Peer-to-peer support is becoming a popular way to supplement traditional counseling services in higher education institutions. But this raises several questions: 

  • Why do higher ed students need more support? 
  • What is peer-to-peer support? 
  • How is peer-to-peer support helpful to students? 
  • How can higher ed institutions best implement peer-to-peer support? 

Read on, and you’ll find the answers to all these questions and more. 

The State of Higher Education Student Mental Health 

Many adults look back on their college career and say, “Those were the best years of my life.” And, of course, that sentiment is true for a lot of people. However, research on the current mental health of higher ed students suggests that for many, college is the most challenging time of their lives. 

Surveys show that young adults—who make up the majority of the higher ed student population—are at the greatest risk for mental health concerns. About twice as many 18–25-year-olds report dealing with anxiety and depression than 13-17-year-olds. Also, 18-to-25-year-olds report a higher rate of mental illness than age groups above them as well. Unfortunately, the numbers are even more alarming among young adults attending a higher ed institution. Surveys show that college students aged 18 to 25 face more mental health concerns than their peers who are not in college. 

According to a recent national survey, mental health concerns among higher education students are at an all-time high, with over 60% of student respondents meeting the criteria for at least one mental health issue. This marks about a 50% increase from 2013. Moreover, chronic stress, or feeling overwhelmed and pressured for a long time, is worsening students’ mental health, with 56% of college students experiencing this type of stress. This statistic raises concerns due to the association of chronic stress with the development of numerous mental and physical health issues. 

Research shows that first-year college students are particularly vulnerable. College students aged 18 to 25, especially those entering their first year, face more mental health concerns than their peers who are not in college. Additionally, in a WHO survey, approximately one-third of first year higher ed students screened positive for at least one anxiety, substance, or mood disorder (with depression notably the most common mood disorder). And that survey was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has only intensified the challenges for both new and previously enrolled students.  

Counseling Centers and Student Mental Health Support 

A majority of higher ed institutions have a counseling or well-being center to help students with their mental, emotional, and psychosocial needs. So, why, then, are students not receiving the help they need?  

One major problem lies in students’ willingness to seek help. Surveys of higher ed students reveal that anywhere from 45-65% of students with mental health needs do not seek treatment. 

Other common reasons students do not receive treatment include: 

  • Believing treatment won’t help. 
  • Being unsure about how or where to access mental health resources. 
  • Lack of knowledge about insurance processes and coverage. 
  • Perceived lack of time. 
  • Concerns about stigma. 

An additional barrier to treatment is that when students do seek help, they sometimes face long waiting lists. After all, college counseling centers are contending with an increasing demand from students for support services during a nationwide mental health provider shortage. 

Adding yet another layer of importance to the discussion of student utilization of counseling centers relates to race and ethnicity. Students of color, for example, report higher levels of distress than their White peers, but their rates of use are lower than White students. Perhaps complicating this issue further is the reality that most college counselors are White, which could affect student utilization rates. 

Informal Support Sought by Higher Ed Students 

In lieu of using formal support resources offered by institutions, many students seek informal support from family and friends or turn to resources like self-help books and online platforms, phone apps, and online websites. 

However, mental health misinformation is spreading like wildfire, particularly on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. This trend is concerning, because users who consume this content might mistakenly diagnose themselves with a mental health condition and then engage in risky behaviors to try to treat themselves. There’s also a risk that individuals in need of support might come across information that devalues the importance of treatment and mental health, ultimately leading them to choose not to seek professional help. 

While misinformation certainly is a serious issue, peer exchanges on the web still can be a beneficial avenue for students to consider. Specifically, individuals who participate in online peer interactions may experience an increased sense of belonging and social connectedness. This could be attributed, in part, to the mutual sharing of personal stories and helpful coping skills, which also can assist in the reduction of mental health stigma.  

Despite the possibility of encountering inaccurate information, confrontational comments, or misinformation online, current evidence suggests that the advantages of online peer support surpass the potential drawbacks – especially when the communities are properly moderated and overseen by trained mental health professionals.  

Understanding Peer-to-Peer Support 

When university counseling centers are at full capacity, with far too many students on a waiting list for services, one helpful option is to initiate a peer-to-peer support program. Peer support can be defined, broadly, as social-emotional support offered by an individual with a similar life experience within a trusting and respectful relationship.  

The benefits of such support are vast when higher ed students interact with peers who have similar life experiences. Some frequently cited reasons why students turn to peers for support include discussing relationships, anxiety, and depression. 

Research consistently has established the value of individuals facing similar life challenges connecting with each other, highlighting the benefits of realizing that one’s experiences are part of a shared human condition. Thus, uniting individuals facing similar obstacles can cultivate a supportive environment where empathy and mutual insight flourish, facilitating the exchange of experiences, mutual encouragement, and collective problem-solving. 

Peer-to-peer support can take a variety of forms. Many forms of peer-to-peer support are informal, such as talking with a friend, DM-ing with someone through social media, or going on a walk-and-talk with a roommate.  

Of course, higher ed institutions do not have much control over such informal peer support. Plus, their success is much harder to track. As a result, when higher ed institutions plan to implement peer-to-peer support programs, they tend to use more formal structures. 

Here are some different types of peer-to-peer mental health and well-being support services used by higher education institutions: 

  • Hotlines (or chat lines), where trained students listen to the concerns of other students or provide mental health information or resources, but do not offer counseling or coaching. 
  • One-on-one peer mental health coaching, where a trained student helps a peer set goals for behavior changes, unrelated to a clinical mental health issue, over 2-3 sessions. 
  • Peer education programs, where students are trained to provide other students with mental health education and available support resources. 
  • Peer-led support groups, where students meet for a predetermined number of sessions to discuss mental health specific topics related to personal, professional, and/or academic life. 
  • Large-group lectures conducted by groups of students, in which mental health and well-being information is shared and dialogue is encouraged. 
  • Mentorships, where one student (usually older) serves as a role model and trusted peer to another student over a longer period (usually at least one semester). 

The delivery modality of peer-to-peer support programs can vary; however, most peer support programs run in-person, over telephone, via video conference, through text/chat, or via a community forum. 

Benefits of Peer Support for Higher Ed Students 

Research exploring the advantages of peer support programs for higher education students is still in its early stages; however, the findings thus far consistently indicate that peer-to-peer support yields positive outcomes. 

Richard et al. (2022); Worley et al. (2023); Humphrey, Malpiede, and Ragouzeos (2022); and Suresh, Karkossa, Richard, and Karia (2021) all have contributed to a growing body of research on the benefits of peer support for higher education students.

Some noteworthy benefits for students include: 

  • Reduced feelings of depression and anxiety 
  • Reduced sense of loneliness and social isolation 
  • Higher self-esteem and self-confidence 
  • Improved academic achievement 
  • Higher academic self-efficacy 
  • Increased motivation for learning 
  • Increased awareness of mental health resources 
  • Increase in help-seeking behaviors among participants (especially among first-generation students, international students, awnd students of color) 
  • Increased access to mental health care  
  • Reduced mental health stigma 
  • Less demand on counseling staff 

Furthermore, the developmental needs of young adults (who, again, make up the majority of higher ed students) align well with participation in peer-to-peer support programs. Young adults are yearning to refine or re-define their identity, and peer support often provides them with a safe space for exploration. 

Considering the significant concerns regarding student mental health, this evidence positions peer-to-peer support as an effective remedy, highlighting its importance in fostering well-being and academic achievement. 

Barriers to Implementing Peer-to-Peer Support Programs in Higher Ed 

Given the high level of mental health needs among higher education students and the fact that research generally supports its effectiveness, why are peer-to-peer support programs not more prevalent in higher ed institutions? As it turns out, there are three main barriers that can prevent peer support programs. 

#1) Liability 

Many higher education institutions express concerns about the potential liability associated with peer-to-peer support programs. These programs often involve unlicensed peers offering well-being support, raising questions about responsibility if negative outcomes occur, either for the student receiving support or the peer facilitator.  

Despite the lack of evidence indicating that peer support programs could lead to adverse outcomes, institutions remain cautious. They are particularly concerned about the perception of their role in case a student engaging in a peer-to-peer support program experiences severe consequences, such as suicide. This concern highlights the institutions’ focus on the optics and implications of offering such support services. 

#2) Funding 

The financial aspect of implementing a peer-to-peer support program often presents a significant obstacle to higher education institutions. With budgets frequently constrained and subject to reductions, finding the necessary funds for creating and maintaining these programs can be challenging. This difficulty is compounded by the relative novelty of research supporting the benefits of peer support, making it harder for administrators to justify the cost of implementation. 

The return on investment (ROI) for such programs can be particularly difficult to measure, as the impacts on student well-being and academic success are not always immediately evident or easily measured in monetary terms. Consequently, despite the potential for positive outcomes, concerns surrounding financial justification can hamper the more immediate adoption of peer support initiatives in higher education settings. 

#3) Logistics 

Logistical challenges represent another significant barrier to the implementation of peer-to-peer support programs within higher education institutions. These challenges encompass a range of considerations, including: 

  • Leadership and Management: Determining who should oversee and manage these programs is a complex decision. For example, should they be entirely student-led to ensure relatability and accessibility, or is there a need for faculty or staff oversight to ensure structure and accountability? 
  • Integration into Existing Support Systems: Figuring out how peer-to-peer support programs fit within the broader landscape of institutional well-being support services requires a methodical and systemic approach. This includes ensuring that they complement, rather than duplicate or undermine, existing resources. 
  • Scheduling and Accessibility: Coordinating schedules to maximize accessibility for both peer supporters and those seeking support, while also balancing academic and personal commitments, is essential to program success. 
  • Privacy and Confidentiality: Ensuring the privacy and confidentiality of participants, which is paramount, necessitates careful planning and specialized training for peer supporters. 
  • Quality Control: Addressing quality control in peer-to-peer support programs demands ongoing monitoring and adjustments to improve accessibility and engagement. Institutions must actively evaluate and refine their approaches to maintain relevancy and meet the varied needs of students, ensuring the creation of an inclusive and ethically responsible environment. 

Navigating all the above logistical challenges requires thoughtful planning, resource allocation, and ongoing evaluation to ensure the success and sustainability of peer-to-peer support programs within higher education institutions. 

Best Practices for Implementing Peer-to-Peer Support on College Campuses

While research on the efficacy of peer support programs at higher education institutions is fairly new, two clear themes have emerged: 

  1. Higher education institutions are facing a greater demand for student support services than they can currently meet. 
  1. Providing a peer-to-peer support program for students is better than students receiving no additional support at all. 

Given those two themes, it makes sense for higher ed institutions to work on implementing peer support programs. 

When implementing peer-to-peer support on college campuses, the following best practices are essential for ensuring the program’s effectiveness and sustainability: 

Understand Student Mental Health Needs: Regularly assess the mental health needs of the student body through surveys, focus groups, and collaboration with campus health services. Keeping a pulse on these needs helps to ensure that the peer-to-peer support services are relevant and tailored to the current school climate. 

Create Interest-Specific Groups: Develop specific groups that connect students with similar life experiences or challenges. This can enhance empathy, trust, and understanding among peers, providing a more nuanced support system for individuals facing particular issues. 

Establish Metrics for Success: Identify your preferred outcomes for the program and how you are going to measure those before implementation. Program efficacy can be measured through engagement rates, satisfaction surveys, and improvements in mental health outcomes. Regularly assess these metrics to measure the impact of the program and to identify areas for improvement. 

Collaborate With an External Partner: Consider partnering with a professional organization that specializes in student mental health support and has an existing peer-to-peer support program. Choosing the right partner can help institutions overcome barriers to implementation, including logistical challenges, liability concerns, and budgetary constraints.  

By adhering to these best practices, institutions can implement a peer-to-peer support program that meets the evolving mental health needs of their students, while also fostering a supportive community and enhancing overall student well-being.  

Oasis Moderated Peer Support Forum

The Oasis Education Solution: Peer-to-Peer Support Forum

We live in an age where established and emerging technologies like texting, video calls, and online forums have changed peer support delivery modalities for the better. These tools assist in ensuring that students in need of mental health support can find both comfort and connection without the fear of judgement. 

Oasis Education recognizes the growing importance of nurturing student peer-to-peer relationships to improve psychosocial and academic outcomes, while also acknowledging the challenges that higher education institutions encounter during implementation.  

By leveraging both well-established and groundbreaking technological innovations, we offer a peer-to-peer support forum on our platform that can be used as an alternative to traditional therapy or in tandem with college counseling centers to provide comprehensive support.  

Our meticulously crafted forum provides the following features to optimize user experience and alleviate the burden of implementation on school administrators: 

Privacy and Confidentiality 

Our peer support platform allows students in the forums to post without needing to reveal personally identifiable information, helping to decrease worries about judgment from others and increase openness in discussions about lived experiences. Only our licensed professional counselor moderators have access to members’ real names and contact information, striking a necessary balance between student safety and anonymity. 

To access the forum, enrollment at a school partnered with Oasis is required. This allows entry either through single sign-on with school credentials or by using an email domain approved by Oasis. 

Tailored User Experiences 

In the dynamic world of higher education, it’s common for students to encounter shared challenges, from striving for academic excellence to building and maintaining healthy relationships. But each student’s journey is unique, so individual needs can vary widely.  

To ensure that each student feels seen and supported in their specific circumstances, our peer support forum provides students with the option to join topic-specific groups, such as Study Tips, Academic Anxiety, and Physical Health and Fitness. This tailored approach assures that all students can find targeted guidance, complementing the broader general discussions that span their varied experiences. 

24/7 Forum Moderation 

The Oasis peer support forum is overseen by our team of licensed mental health professionals, who moderate the community 24/7. These moderators are trained to spot, hold, and review student posts that contain harmful or concerning language. Additionally, posts are automatically flagged, quarantined, and held for moderator review by our platform when the posts are suspected of violating our community guidelines or are using pre-determined trigger words. 

HIPAA and FERPA Compliance 

Using an ISO 27001 and SOC 2 certified platform that adheres to HIPAA and FERPA compliances, Oasis ensures the highest level of protection for student data. This comprehensive approach to security, encompassing physical, technological, and administrative controls alongside rigorous privacy policies, directly addresses liability concerns, allowing administrators at higher education institutions to breathe a little easier. 

Data-Driven Insights for Continuous Improvement 

To measure the effectiveness of our services, Oasis uses student usage and engagement rates as key performance indicators (KPIs). Our reporting dashboards provide real-time insights into how many students are registering, how actively they’re engaging with the platform, and any incidents that were reported. This data set is crucial, as it helps us to understand the overall wellbeing of each unique student body and to respond promptly to emerging mental health trends.  

In addition to these analytics, we regularly send out surveys to gather direct feedback from students. This feedback helps us to continuously refine and enhance both our current features and the development of new services, ensuring that our platform meets the evolving needs of the student community. 

Program Sustainability  

Acknowledging the financial strain higher education institutions and their students are facing in today’s economy, Oasis offers a straightforward, inclusive, and cost-effective payment structure for our partners. An annual fee based on total enrollment makes our entire platform, including the peer-to-peer support forum, accessible to all students at no cost to them, thus removing financial barriers and promoting widespread adoption across institutions. 

Year-Round Support 

The Oasis platform delivers continuous, uninterrupted support throughout the year to students, broadening the scope of mental health care beyond the confines of a physical campus. By making peer and professional support easily accessible at all times of the year, Oasis caters to all students – whether they’re residing on campus, abroad, or at home.  

With Oasis Education, students have a place to turn to when they need help, offering them user-friendly mental health support services and resources that fit into their lives – whether they are digital natives or newcomers. 

Elevating Student Well-Being with Peer-to-Peer Support  

Although the research on peer support programs for higher ed students is relatively young, the current findings are clear: when students connect with peers who share similar life experiences, their well-being improves. From reducing feelings of isolation and anxiety to improving academic success and self-confidence, the power of peer support is undeniable.  

It is true that higher ed institutions face many barriers when it comes to implementing peer support programs for students, but innovative and inclusive solutions, such as Oasis Education, can help to reduce concerns related to liability, funding, and logistics. 

Now is the time for action. Oasis calls on higher education institutions to recognize the growing student mental health crisis and the potential for peer support programs to make a meaningful difference. By investing in peer-to-peer programs, colleges and universities can create a more supportive and connected student community – one in which every student knows they are not alone, their voices are heard, their mental health matters, and help is available.  

The future of student well-being depends on our collective action. Together, we can make peer-to-peer support a cornerstone of our approach to mental health in higher education, thereby positively transforming the current landscape of student mental health. 

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