Peer Educators Program: shining light on mental illness

Proactive and compassionate, Peer Educators opens up their program with workshops addressing mental wellness.

Peer Educators is a group of students interning within the Psychological Services center on campus. The group is focused on bringing awareness to mental health issues by hosting events on campus. Through this, the Peer Educators hope to release stigma and provide resources to students who are not ready to go to Psychological Services yet.

“We want to open a dialogue on campus about mental health and mental illness and how it does affect so many students,” intern Nicole Cutrona said. “It is a real issue that we don’t talk about too often.”

This is Peer Educators' first official year as a group after piloting the project on a smaller scale last year. Where only two students made up the program last year, Peer Educators is now comprised of 11 interns, diverse in backgrounds and majors.

“I think what ties everyone together is a passion for representing the mental health field and just wanting to help fellow students,” Cutrona said. “Compassion is kind of the main factor. People came in for interviews like, ‘Should i cover my tattoos? Change my hair color?’ No, you’re perfect. The point is we’re trying to represent the student population and how varied it really is.”

The group’s first event of the semester, Movies for Mental Illness, will be held tomorrow from 11a to 1p in BUS 111. Peer Educators partnered with Art for Impact, a nonprofit which uses art to address a variety of mental health issues.

During the event, several Art for Impact short films will play, each followed by a group discussion. At the end, several of SMC’s psychologists and Peer Educators will come together with various mental health agencies from the community to discuss living with mental health issues, seeking aid and fighting stigma.

“If people are hesitant about mental health as a topic or want to learn more about it and see what it’s about, come to our Movies for Mental Health,” Cutrona said. “It’s a safe, easy way to get introduced to all of these ideas and to learn more. We’re really excited to be able to bring this to campus.”

Future Peer Educator events lined up include workshops centered around topics like test anxiety, body image, losing loved ones, reducing mental health stigma and healthy relationships.

“In workshops, when I disclose personal information about myself dealing with mental illness, I can see other students opening up and wanting to share about their own life experiences,” Cutrona said. “I can show ‘Yes, I’m a student and I’m making it work’ and it’s not something I’m ashamed of, and they can see it’s something they don’t need to be ashamed of either.”

The interns earned training through mental health education organizations such as Mental Health First Aid, BACCHUS and Kognito.

While these qualifications do not make the interns certified psychologists by a long shot, it provides Peer Educators with the ability to educate their peers (yup) and recognize signs to kickstart their peer’s journeys to improved mental health.

“If, at a workshop, anyone has any questions or wants to come up to us, we’re always available to talk,” Cutrona said. “If someone wants ask questions, we can walk to class and talk with you. One of our main goals is to direct people to resources in the community.”

Since on-campus resources are scarce, oftentimes Psychological Services cannot provide much more than short-term problem solving for students in need. Because of this, one of the center’s strategies is to direct students to outside resources to find long-term assistance.

Psychological Services hopes that Peer Educators becomes another way for students to learn about assistive resources in a more discreet manner. By relating to their peers during workshops, Psychological Services predicts that students will be more open to considering mental health assistance.

“I think it’s often more powerful coming from a peer than coming from a faculty member or a psychologist,” Alison Brown, psychologist and Peer Educators advisor, said. “We’ve come a long way and Psychological Services are in high demand but there’s still a huge stigma around mental health and mental illness. With Peer Educators, people can still get information without having to walk into our office, which can be very scary for a lot of students. I think [aid] coming from peers makes it that much more accessible, much more relatable, less scary.”

Peer Educators will release internship applications for the 2016-2017 school year beginning in Spring.

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