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Trying to Fill a Void, Peer Counselors Offer Advice That The Pros Can't

By Jonathan M. Berlin

It is 2 a.m. You did poorly on the midterm you got back today, and earlier you had an unpleasant call from home.

Your roommates, with whom you have trouble talking even in the best of times, are fast asleep.

You begin to feel as if there's no place for you here.

Welcome to the world of peer counseling at Harvard, where, as one counselor puts it, "you're not expected to be perfect."

To alleviate both the seemingly insurmountable crises--and even the more prosaic ones--five specially trained student groups are on call day and night.

R. Ellen Bledsoe '90, a co-director of Room 13, the self-described all-purpose counseling service, says that there is a common misperception at Harvard that "you have to have tested HIV positive to seek help from a counseling group."

"People can come down with very simple problems," she says.

With specialties ranging from issues of sexual harassment to nothing in particular, each student group has carved out its own niche in the College's support network.

A Harvard Community?

While some counselors maintain that their work is no more needed at Harvard than it would be on any other campus, many say they fill a major void unique to the College.

Since Harvard undergraduates are taught to be self-reliant, some counselors say, they tend not to admit problems to professionals or friends because such actions could be interpreted as signs of failure.

"We have a campus full of overachievers who are supposed to be on top of everything," says Bledsoe. "People aren't supposed to need other people."

Michelle S. Jaffe '91, co-director of Peer Contraceptive Counselors (PCC), says that because of the high-pressure pace of life at the College, the need for support is especially acute for students dealing with relationships.

"Emotional commitments are hard and frightening," she says. "There are so many things going on that it's difficult to balance a social life and academics."

Filling a Void

All of the peer counselors interviewed for this article said their efforts could not be matched by any other resource on a college campus, no matter what steps the administration might take to improve them.

"There would be a void without us," says Cara W. Robertson '90, co-director of Response, a 16-member group specializing in sexual harassment as well as more general relationship problems.

Each of the student-run counseling groups has extensive and varying "hotline" hours, sometimes all night, when students can call or drop-in to talk.

All the groups are supervised by the University Health Services (UHS) and some by the Bureau of Study Counsel, but peer advisers say that their services go beyond what those professional services can offer.

"Their peers are more in tune with their needs and their feelings," says Michelle B. Fontaine '90, co-director of PCC. She says that the group's counselees who have tried both types of counseling almost always say that they prefer student counse-100 percent sure that they will not raise an

"It's a lot easier to admit you're not all that knowledgeable in front of a peer counselor, rather than a doctor or a nurse," Jaffe says.

Students especially like going to peer counsenling services because of they are not tied to more than a temporary relationship. "You don't have to go back, and no one will ever know you were there," says Jaffe.

Members of the group Contact, which focuses on issues of sexual orientation, say that they especially perform a function that professional counseling may sometimes leave incomplete.

"There are still a few professional out there who see homosexuality as something to be cured or changed," says Jed David Kolko '92, a co-director of Contact. "There's a risk the experience could be at the very least unhelpful, and at the worst, destructive."

"Contact ensures that a student can be absolutely, 100 percent sure that they will not raise an eyebrow, certainly not on issues of sexual orientation," says Contact Co-Director Humberto X. Mata '90-'91.

Student counselors say that the hours they are open cover a timespan during which little other help is even available. For instance, Room 13 is open all night, as is Response several evenings a week.

Peer counseling groups are a "place to go or call when you have to talk to someone immediately," says Shael Brachman '90, co-director of Response.

Counselees who call in to the groups are the rule rather than the exception, according to the counselors, who say that students prefer the anonymity of the telephone.

Complementary Efforts

While there are five peer counseling groups at Harvard, counselors say that they are not in competition because each group has a unique strength.

Marta K. Taylor '92, co-director of Eating Concerns Hotline Outreach (ECHO), says that if she went to a group that did not have the level of training for eating disorders as hers, "I don't know if I would feel I was being heard specially."

Brachman says that Response's advantage over a more general group is "not that we give better advice, we give more exact advice."

But Bledsoe argues that these specialties do not render obsolete Room 13, which prides itself on being a nonspecialty group. She says that often people prefer talking with a general counseling service because they may initially be reluctant to label their problem.

Bledsoe says the three most common topics for discussion at Room 13 are relationship problems, information referrals and academic affairs. But she says that sometimes counselors handling their first call ever have been called on to assist suicidal counselees.

In addition, counselors from each group say that they often refer students to other services that have more specific training.

"Not everyone is trying to replace each other, but to complement each other," says Mata. "It's not a competition for customers."

Short-Term Help

While the peer counselors say that they never feel a situation is over their heads, they sometimes suggest that students seek professional services in addition.

"Long-term counseling has greater benefits," Brachman says. "You work on problems."

"You can't make, in a few short hours, a problem go away," she says. "That would be a ridiculous, outrageous goal."

Bledsoe says that while some people do come regularly to seek help from Room 13, she stresses that her group is not equipped to treat long-term problems.

"We're not trained therapists, so we discourage it," she says. "We can't be a substitute for friends."

Enough Use?

While counselors say a 12-hour overnight shift staffing a hotline typically turns up only a handful of callers or drop-ins, they say they are not sure whether that is a positive or negative reflection on the Harvard community.

"We don't know how many people are out there who could benefit from us," says Fontaine of PCC.

Taylor says of ECHO that "we get business", but she says "I don't know whether to feel good about that or not."

Counselors say that they are fairly certain that their efforts have a positive effect on the College community although they say there is no way for them to know definitively.

"We have no idea what kind of influence we have," says Bledsoe. But she says she thinks she knows the answer.

"People do leave with smiles on their faces," she says.

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