Jan. 31, 2020

Healing through shared experiences is central to peer listening

Program of support connects students with someone on campus who truly understands
Peer Listeners volunteer together at the Well.
Peer Listeners volunteer together at the Well.

With Bell Let’s Talk Day 2020 now in our rear-view mirror, the matter of how we continue the conversation on mental health all year long becomes something important to consider. Megan MacKay, student support adviser, says the peer support program offered by Student Wellness Services is a great resource to keep that conversation going. 

Operating Monday to Friday from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Well (MSC 373), peer listening is a free, drop-in, confidential and safe space for students to connect and share with others who get what it’s like to be a student.

“For some, peer listening can be a warm, easy first step to breaking a barrier like accessing short-term clinical support,” says MacKay. “Others might not require more formal support systems — they might just need a quiet place and someone who isn’t in their social circle to listen and provide support.”

Seeking support an important first step

Common concerns MacKay sees range from tough transitions for new students and academic stress, to loneliness and interpersonal conflict. If, however, further resources are required, peers can refer students to other forms of mental health support.

Volunteers are typically third- or fourth-year undergrads, or graduate students. They all go through mandatory training, including honing active listening skills, and suicide prevention training, and usually come with experience already in place, for example, working on a mental health crisis line. Many are potentially working towards a degree in a helping field, such as psychology or social work.

Peers have lived the experience

Obvious maybe, but most importantly: Peer listeners have valued lived experience being students themselves. Coming from an intrinsic place of empathy is something unique to peer listening that a student might not find in more formal support systems. MacKay says: “Our volunteers are strong because of their own experiences.”

For MacKay, “It’s one of the best parts of my job, seeing people take time out of their busy schedules to be there for other students. Our volunteers have incredibly sincere conversations.” That personal connection on a peer-to-peer level is meaningful when dealing with difficult situations.

In addition to peer listening through Student Wellness Services, MacKay cites other peer supports offered across campus, including (but not limited to) programs offered through the Women’s Resource Centre and The Q Centre.

Interested in becoming a peer listener?

Recruitment for peer listeners happens in late March, with training taking place on one weekend day the following September, plus an additional suicide training workshop. Listeners are asked to commit to a minimum of six to eight hours a month for at least one semester, or the whole academic year if their schedules allow.

The placement opens students up for networking and reference opportunities, as well as optional professional development in the form of additional free certifications and training. For instance, Carla Bertsch, sexual violence support advocate, has instructed volunteers on how to respond to disclosures.

Does the role of peer listener itself interest you? Stay tuned to this page for updates or sign up for Student Wellness Services’ newsletter.

Peer listening is a program brought to students by Student Wellness Services, and supports the values and recommendations of The Campus Mental Health Strategy. The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. Find support and connect to the strategy.