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

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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