Peer support: How one university and an online platform are providing mental health help for students
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, the University of West Florida had many mental health services available to students, including individual therapy and psychiatric services, group counseling and a program called Let’s Talk that offered them a chance to drop in and talk with counselors if they needed it.
But the one thing that was missing was peer support. And when the college had to be locked down, there were heightened concerns about loneliness, a lack of bonding and connection with campus.
Luckily for West Florida, it had a longstanding relationship with afterhours provider ProtoCall Services to deal with crisis intervention. They relayed to UWF a service called Togetherall that offered a peer-to-peer safe space for students to reach out and connect with one another and discuss their concerns.
West Florida recognized that this could be moment to “close the circle” of care for students and entered into a partnership with Togetherall, hoping to provide them another critical resource.
“Universities struggle with meeting the mental health needs of students, and we have had that issue for a number of years now,” says Dr. Michelle Manassah, the Executive Director for Counseling and Health Services at West Florida. “Given the value of peer connection, the challenges of the pandemic with social isolation and having some or all of their normal social interactions being replaced by virtual, it is so important to give students the opportunity to connect with others to both get and give support.”
For West Florida, Togetherall’s 24-hour, 7-day peer networking platform provided a reassuring space for students during this international crisis.
“We really did not know what to expect in terms of student engagement,” Manassah said. “But we’ve been pleasantly surprised. We’ve had fabulous feedback from students who have engaged on the platform. It’s available to all students, and it’s free for them.”
Making that connection
Togetherall has been in business globally doing peer-to-peer networking for about 14 years. Two million students have accessed the platform and it is available at 200 institutions of higher education.
Essentially it provides a community forum for students to connect with one another and share their thoughts and experiences in a robust mental health community that is monitored by clinicians. There are scores of discussion boards where students can enter keywords or find a topic or group where they can enter conversations that resonate with them or create their own posts, according to Matthew McEvoy, senior vice president and general manager of Togetherall in North America. Because the community is so large, McEvoy says, it doesn’t take long for a peer to respond.
Clinicians, meanwhile, play a huge part in the oversight of the community and its walls.
“Inevitably there’ll be talk of things like self-harm and suicide,” he says. “The clinicians are there to intervene in that situation, but they also keep the community vibrant and the conversations going and stay supportive. They also help with getting students to more intensive levels of care if they need them, knowing that peer to peer is a great part of a mental health solution, but it’s not the solution. It’s one part of that.”
That’s where the relationship and integration with institutions such as West Florida come in. Those students who need further help can get it through the suites of services available on their campuses. If it’s urgent, West Florida’s students are referred to ProtoCall to help in that crisis moment.
“That link back to other resources on campus is really the critical component,” McEvoy says. “You can go online and find a lot of tools, and they all sort of happen in isolation. No student wants to use 10 different things that aren’t connected to one another. Our focus has been getting them to the right support, and sometimes peer support. But it’s not always the best place for students. Sometimes it might be the first place they come and connect. And it’s very clear straight away that they need more.”
The need for peer support
How vital is the peer support service? Prior to the pandemic, colleges and universities across the U.S. were already making mental health a top priority. In the early months after the discovery of COVID-19 in the U.S., nearly two-thirds of students said their emotional wellbeing was worse. Many expressed increased anxiety and stress.
According to Togetherall, 80% of those who connect are doing so because of feelings of depression. Nearly half say they do not have regular contact with a healthcare provider to get help.
As McEvoy and Manassah point out, the first step, the connection through Togetherall can be that first step in students expressing their feelings and making a bond with someone who is going through the same issues. Its service is completely anonymous, which allays some of the fears they have about talking through those thoughts.
“If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that it’s really brought a spotlight on the fact that mental health issues can happen to anyone. And that mental health interventions and treatments are important and should be prioritized,” Manassah says. “That’s always happened at UWF, but shining the spotlight on it and finding innovative ways to meet the needs of students is has been paramount during the pandemic. Technology in general has forever changed the way that mental health can and will be delivered in the future.”
At West Florida, the service has been a blessing because its student body has been scattered during the pandemic. Some are operating online in a hybrid environment, some reside on campus and some are connecting from all parts of the country. Students don’t fear reaching out online to get help from peers.
“We wanted this to be a resource that anyone across campus can access,” Manassah says. “Students don’t have to be a client. They never have to step foot in Counseling and Psychological Services to access the support.”
How they made it happen
The rollout of the service at West Florida involved the training of many departments – housing and residential life staff, student affairs and academic engagement – to get familiar with the platform. It was delayed briefly, about 10 days, because of Hurricane Sally, but got going with the help of representatives from Togetherall.
“We really like to engage with the counseling center and other key stakeholders on campus, including student groups. Very often we have involvement with the Student Government Association and the Active Minds chapter on campus. We like to bring all of them together. It’s about driving awareness and making sure that Togetherall is available, kind of where students are already going – on the LMS or through the residence halls and student life.”
West Florida came up with unique solutions to do outreach and let students know about Togetherall during the pandemic. With fewer students on campus, “we had to creative,” Manassah says. “We began promoting it to all students on our electronic learning platform. So, whenever students would log in, they would get messages about Togetherall. It gave students that immediate pathway to connect. We are now developing a whole mental health module to go onto Canvas.”
Manassah said faculty have expressed that students have been struggling, so her team has been relaying information about the service to them. Before the lengthy winter break, they provided faculty with slides and videos that they could include in their final class presentations. “We really saw a spike after we engaged faculty,” she says.
One of the groups reaching out the most has been non-traditional students, those 25 and older, who comprised more than a quarter of those connecting.
“Sometimes that group of students can be somewhat overlooked on campus in terms of what their needs might be,” she says.
For West Florida, the ability to provide the service both remotely and to those on campus, for all demographics, has been a difference-maker.
“We offer treatment and other support through the Counseling Center. We offer after-hour crisis support through ProtoCall. And now we’re able to offer 24/7 peer-to-peer support that is linked to both our crisis and on campus counseling center,” she says. “If students are struggling to the point where they need some intervention, with Togetherall, that’s available, and monitored by professionals who can connect them with resources at their university.”