MAASTRICHT. Imagine you’re a first-year who is feeling a bit lonely. You’d like to make more friends, but don’t know where to start. This is where the new peer support system that the student guidance team at the Student Service Centre is developing comes in. Student volunteers will be trained to help their peers in various ways, from stress management to referring them to the correct resources if they need professional assistance. Similar programs have been implemented at different universities globally, such as the University of Oxford and the KU Leuven.
“Peer to peer support is actually not something new”, says Greet Kellens, student psychologist and project leader of the peer support system. Students want to help their friends anyway, and the new system formalizes this relationship. “It lowers the stigma about getting professional help if you hear about it from a friend and not one of us,” says Kellens. After attending a “trainer’s training” at the University of Oxford, she has been working together with fellow psychologist Maddy Meijers, among others, to implement the system at Maastricht University. “We don’t want to make new psychologists”, Kellens says. Mieke Jansen, Student Guidance team leader, stresses that “it’s more like a formal friendship. We hope that students make friends, of course, but supporters can give more formal advice if needed.”
The peer support system is similar to the buddy system that the International Student Ambassador Programme (ISAP) organizes since 2015, which helps students find their way when starting university. Kellens: “In 2015, we started doing trainings together with ISAP.” In theory the existing program is open to anyone, but often only international students take advantage of it. Peer support should build on the existing framework and expand it to all students. This should also improve the relationship between all students and the psychologists. To show exactly how their idea will fit into existing structures such as the ISAP buddy system, Jansen springs enthusiastically towards a small white board on the wall and draws up a formula. “P + P = P2”, she writes. The problem is, she explains, that the relationship between students and psychologists, the first “P”, is often one-dimensional. “You only come to the psychologist if you already know where to look, but we can’t reach out.” This is where the second “P” comes in, the peer. “Peers allow us to expand our relationship to all students. We can reach far more people that way and help students even if they just have small problems”.
How will peer support improve the relationship between students and psychologists? A diagram, which is quickly sketched next to the formula, shows four levels decreasing in size as they ascend: on the bottom, the broadest level, come the students, next peer support, then support and prevention measures like workshops that the guidance team already does, and on top, curative support. “Now we have a lot of students who come to us for the top level support but they would actually be better served by attending a workshop or even just asking a friend.” Jansen hopes that the addition of another type of support can further shorten, or perhaps fully circumvent, the three to six week waiting time for curative support. Kellens clarifies that “this is still shorter than the waiting time for regular mental health care”, but they hope to do even better.
Kellens and Jansen hope that in the next five years, everyone will be able to take advantage of the service. There seems to be considerable interest in the project already – without naming names, Jansen affirms that “some of the faculties across the river” are highly motivated to implement the support framework for their students. “We have to take it one faculty at a time to make sure we develop something that corresponds to what each faculty finds most useful.” Starting with projects at individual faculties is important because it allows them to develop pilot projects. As Jansen remarks, “you can’t start with a system that runs UM-wide from the beginning”.
Peer supporters are not just there to tackle problems, they can also carry out social activities. “If you share a hobby with your peer supporter, you can also go to the movies or go work out,” says Kellens. Like the ISAP-buddies or community building events at the InnBetween, the student chaplaincy, peer support should help students feel connected among themselves. But it’s not all fun and games, according to Jansen: “At the university there is generally much focus on academic skills which are traditionally seen as more important in a later profession. Being emotionally resilient and knowing how to help others is just as important.”