Peer Counseling Validates Feelings

To the Editors

"I myself have nothing against therapy. It's good and (frequently) necessary," wrote David H. Goldbrenner ("Psychobabble? Harvard's Counseling Groups Go Overboard," Opinion, October 15, 1994)

Although he focuses his critique on the "heavy socio-political overtones" in the peer groups' posters, David Goldbrenner's voice and reasoning fundamentally berate the "quality and intent" of the campus peer counseling groups, and it is this for which I hold him accountable.

Speaking on behalf of our "audience," he asserts that "Harvard students are intelligent enough to realize when they're troubled." According to David Goldbrenner, the posters represent not "a genuine effort to help the troubled" but an attempt by psych majors to flex, which simply alienates the afore-mentioned "troubled."

He then proceeds to chide peer counseling groups for obscuring our callers' and visitors' concerns with "politics and larger societal issues."

However, when we poster, our intent is not to recruit potential callers from the Harvard-Radcliffe community, nor do we wish to tell people how they "should" feel. The quotes which lead off each poster are not meant to declare attitudes or emotions universally shared.

The posters are meant to validate these feelings for those who may be experiencing them and to offer those individuals a safe place to explore and discuss their feelings.

David Goldbrenner displays unwarranted presumption in attempting to speak for all people who have been raped or sexually harassed, who are trying to come out or deciding whether to stay in the closet, who want to discuss the risks and benefits in safer sex....

By asserting that we as "Harvard students" should be intelligent enough to recognize and deal with our problems, he implies that we should be able to cope on our own, or at least know how and when to ask for help.

Response is not self-righteous enough to presume that we can serve as the only resource for a woman whose lover has hit her, or even to define her relationship as a "battered relationship."

However, we do want people to read these posters and understand that yes, other people have experienced these kinds of feelings and yes, there is a place where they can speak confidentially and anonymously about them.

As for his charge that we confound private issues with "larger societal issues," we would again explain that our group espouses no political argument either in its outreaches or in its calls. We do not tell people they should feel "oppressed," "used," or even "upset."

I credit David Goldbrenner for making me realize that some students see us that way. And if people who wish to talk about their own or their friends' experiences are intimidated by us for that reason, peer groups should be genuinely concerned.

However, I would also argue that it would be irresponsible if Response or any other peer group failed to recognize that issues like racism and homophobia and sexual harassment do affect the emotions of specific people.

If that is something they themselves wish to address, we want them to feel safe to explore these "larger societal issues" as well.

The kind of counseling we do is non-judgmental and non-directive; we do not label our callers or visitors as "conservative" or "liberal," or argue with their belief systems.

So while we agree with David H. Goldbrenner that counseling "should be effective and fair," we also believe that a complex reality necessitates our understanding of how "larger issues" relate to our own lives.

Peer counseling groups are not designed as a long-term therapy resource. We recognize that we are not the only or the best places for every person on campus to turn, and our posters don't advertise us as such.

We want students to consider peer groups safe, confidential, and anonymous places where they can continue or begin to talk. Unfortunately, I fear that David Goldbrenner's strategy of criticism has invalidated the personal concerns of many students with his self righteous attitude. Neda Ratanawongsa '96

The writer is a member of Response.