Anonymous Student Interview about Administrative Changes to the Peer Counselor Program

Anonymous Student Interview about Administrative Changes to the Peer Counselor Program

Today I sat down with one of the Kenyon students helping to organize protests against changes to the Peer Counseling program. I’m sure you’ve seen the protestors sitting in Peirce with their various signs. Perhaps you’ve even talked to them about their cause. If you haven’t and you’re still not completely clear about what’s going on, I urge you to speak with the protestors and ask them about their concerns. They’re friendly and they don’t bite– I promise. For now, here’s an interview about potential changes to the Peer Counseling program and how these changes might impact the student body. I’d like to thank my anonymous source, the Peer Counselors, and the student protestors for all the hard work they’re doing.

Q: Have you or has anyone you know had better experiences with the PCs than with the counseling center?

A lot of people I know have had better experiences with the PCs. I think there’s less pressure and less at stake when you talk to another student as opposed to a counselor. Also a lot of students face very stigmatized mental illnesses. At the counseling center students could be reported to officials; counselors could do things students don’t want them to do. So PCs are able to talk to students on their terms completely anonymously.

Q: What are the goals of the organized protests against the new PC policies?

A: The PCs have been working with the administration for a long time. We’ve been trying to go through official channels and compromise but we feel like we’re not being heard by them. We feel like we’re not having the same desire to reach a middle ground with them. Publicizing this information [about the changes to the program] was a last-resort decision because it seemed like on our own, we weren’t able to reach the compromises we were able to reach. The organized protests have been supplementary to the work we’re already doing. What we’re doing is focusing on awareness and visibility because a lot of people don’t understand what it means to have confidentiality and why it’s so important to have the hotline. Through the sit-in we’ve had so many people come up to us and ask us, “hey, I understand this part of the issue, but what about confidentiality? I don’t get why these other changes are happening.” So we got to tell someone the real problem with confidentiality and not what people think it is or what Meredith Bonham says it is in her email. We’re trying to get people to care about this issue and rally behind us.

Q: What have been students’ responses to your concerns and protests? Faculty responses? Admins? Alums?

A: Alums are incredibly supportive of us. It was actually the alums who came up with an idea of the protest and helped us plan it. They’ve been calling, emailing, doing everything they can short of flying over here. Some of them actually are thinking about flying over here.

Students are fairly supportive but not all of them 100% understand confidentiality. We’re still mandated reporters and we’d never deal with something out of our depth. But if you come to us and it’s not an emergency, you know we’re not going to tell anyone else. You know it’s just between us. We have had cases of students who are facing depression for example, and are having moments of suicidal ideation, who we know nothing is actually going to happen and they’re not in immediate danger So we’re able to talk to them like real people, help them make a safety plan, and make sure they’re safe.

We haven’t had much contact with faculty yet but we’ve noticed a lot of faculty interacting with the articles we’ve been sharing and showing their general support. I think that faculty voices are very important bc they have more contact with the administration than we do.

Q: Could you elaborate on why PCs often feel safer to some students than the Counseling Center?

A: The Counseling Center has sent students home when a lot of the issues are at home. There are also stigmatized mental health issues, where students by law can against their will be institutionalized. That’s happened through the Counseling Center as well. Students know we’re peers, students know we’ve been through similar things. So because we’re not in that official position, we can be there if someone just needs somebody to listen or help them process. There have been a lot of instances where students have been in the uncomfortable position of a counselor suggesting something that wouldn’t be the best action for them. We’re this safer, less official answer. Most PCs are PCs because they’ve gone through mental health issues. Students pick PCs who they know who have gone through something similar. It’s good for students who aren’t ready to take that official, clinical step or perhaps wouldn’t want to take that step.

Q: What have been your experiences with mental health at Kenyon?

A: It’s been pretty varied. I think there have also been lots of changes within the Counseling Center and stuff. On the one hand the Counseling Center has saved me and on the other hand it’s been this added complication. For example, when I came here my freshman year, I didn’t know I was going through mental illness. Turns out I have bipolar. That got really complicated my first year and if it weren’t for Patrick Gilligan I don’t know where I’d be now. There’s also been the flip side: Hurricane María happened last semester. It was really hard to find support. I would reach out and say, “I really need help here, I need to see someone soon” and I’d have someone say, “okay how would two Mondays from now work?” I know counselors are overworked and overwhelmed. The ratio of counselor to students is 1 to 260 (ish). It’s completely unfeasible to ask something more of them– they’re so overworked– but I really really needed support and was unable to get it. That’s why I turned to the PCs. The PCs are here to fill a gap because six counselors are in no way enough for 1000+ students. That’s why the PCs were founded. They were founded because someone committed suicide in the school and there was a general frustration of “the counseling center isn’t enough.” This is why we’re here to this day. And this isn’t to say “the counseling center isn’t doing a good job,” it’s to say, “this is too big a job for just six people to do.”

Q: What would an ideal response from Chris Smith and other administrators look like?

A: We’re not asking for all or nothing. We’re willing to make compromises. For example, one of the changes they want to make is basically limit our small groups because according to them we need a counselor present for every small group. But the Center is telling us counselors don’t have enough time to do the small groups. So only two small groups can stay open. So we need more counselors to attend the small groups. We also understand the necessity to keep track of the work we’re doing– we understand legal binds. But also we understand that there are ways to collect data while maintaining confidentiality: ex, “hi, I’m [x] PC and I talked to a student about [this issue].” And if the issue put someone in danger, we’d be okay with reporting the name of the student. And in regards to the hotline, there are hotline organizations that have branches where we could bring a branch here, so a student could work through an organization. And it’d still be the student on the phone but the organization would provide training and structure. So what we’ve been saying is, “we’re willing to work with you. We’re willing to compromise.” But the administration hasn’t been willing to work with us in this way. They’ve sort of been like, “these changes need to happen in this exact way or we’ll get sued.” Which isn’t the case because we’ve never had any lawsuits or threats of lawsuits. There have just been no productive conversations between us and we’ve been trying. So yeah we’re not asking for all or nothing– just a conversation where we can reach a compromise.

Q: What would you like to see out of the Cox Health and Counseling Center in the future and perhaps the College more generally in regards to mental health?

A: From the Counseling Center, I think we all hope that they hire more staff. I think the staff right now is incredibly overworked and that’s part of the problem. I also think that there was a decision made in which we didn’t have much say: we were a student group and then we were a group under the Counseling Center. This creates legal problem. We didn’t have much say in this issue and that’s the communication problem. So if we were able to establish a more consistent, trusting communication system with the admins, we’d be able to solve a lot of these problems. We want them to understand that we are not working against them but we’re just looking for them to understand that we’re adults and we know what’s going on instead of seeing us as children who are complaining out of nowhere. We’re not just asking that for us– we’re asking that for them [the counselors]. If you go to see counselors, you just know– they have so much work. Especially since we need more counselors who represent more marginalized identities so students who identify with marginalized groups can feel like they can access the Center too. Also just to trust that we’re doing this job as professionally as we can. The PCs take their position so seriously and a lot of the confidentiality issues come from lack of trust from the administration. So if they had more trust in us, and would communicate with us better, we’d be better equipped to do what we need to do.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to comment on– anything else you’d like to get across?

A: If you as a student, the general you, have any doubts as to why we’re upset, why we’re protesting, why it’s “come to this,” just please come up to us and talk to us. Especially with the last couple emails, people are confused about what we’re working for and against. So please talk to a PC. We’re here in the interest of our student body’s mental health and not anything else.

This anonymous interview is in no way affiliated with the Peer Counselors as an organization.

4 responses

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  2. Until the stigma of asking for help is gone and mental health services are in place that meet the needs of all Kenyon students, the Peer Counselor support services remain an invaluable resource at Kenyon, just as they are at most LAC’s. I hope that the counseling center and the administration work together with students who clearly understand their need for peer support systems.

  3. I am an alumnus who was around during the creation of the peer counselors. Over the last week, I’ve seen many of my friends vocally supporting and sharing the information about the proposed changes to the peer counselors. I don’t really have a horse in the race, but I am happy to see both the students and institution working towards bettering the mental health services and the surrounding culture at Kenyon. What I haven’t seen (really since my time at Kenyon) is the other side of the story. I’ve read the arguments against changing the peer counselors. Since the proposed changes were made public, I’ve read many stories of how the Peer Counselors are a vital thread in Kenyon’s offered mental health services. I am well-versed in the reasons the peer counselors were created and all the good that they have done. I was personally familiar with the event I believe the subject of the interview references as the beginning of the formation of the Peer Counselors and remember the many discussions during formation about their current established abilities that may be changing.

    This is an issue that is incredibly complex and delicate, and one that many Colleges and Universities continue to evolve on. I don’t think it is healthy to be so averse to the potential of change. I reached out to an acquaintance who is involved at Oberlin’s peer support organization just to touch base about who they are / how they came to be / what they do. I realize that Oberlin differs in size and culture but do think that the school shares certain similarities with Kenyon. There is a similar narrative at Oberlin about the shortfalls of the Counseling Center, as I’m sure exists at many Liberal Arts Colleges around the country.

    Their Peer Support Center was established by an assistant dean on their campus who has a master’s in counseling and is staffed by students who have participated in training as well as graduated from 2 semester-long courses. They are Title IX mandated reporters and do report intent to harm / suicidal ideation to the counseling center. Their title of “peer listeners” is an intentional distancing from the clinical implications of “counselor”. They are not “on call” at any time because they do not feel that they are equipped to act as a responder to anything that borders on a clinical matter. These boundaries are set to protect the listeners as well as the students.

    I think that it is possible that the proposed changes could be more than “a liability issue” and could actually better serve both the Peer Counselors and the Kenyon community at large.

    Anyway feel free to take or leave what I have to say. I was compelled to write because the most unbiased source of information I’ve read was the Collegian article posted on March 29. I just hope that students are willing to work with the administration to better both the College’s services as well as the services the PCs provide.

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