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Peer Counselors Should Get Support

By Talia Milgrom-elcott

Among the many accolades and hyperboles associated with the Harvard name, there is one distinction that is relatively unknown and quite under-appreciated. Harvard has the renown of having established the first peer counseling group in the country. During the academic year 1970-71, a number of students formed Room 13. Twenty-six years later, Room 13, now joined by four other peer counseling and a whole host of peer education groups, remains open throughout the night to administer to the needs of Harvard's student population.

One would think this is a good thing. After all, Harvard certainly rates high in the stress category; this is a fast-paced, pressured and demanding campus that pushes its students hard. We are expected to perform at peak capacity at all times. There is little time for relaxation and little room for imperfection, to say nothing of vulnerability.

Enter confidential peer counseling. Many of us here are loathe to discuss our insecurities publicly and would benefit greatly from a secure and protected environment in which to discuss questions or just voice uncertainties. Beyond the mundane and very real problems we all face, there are many who have been either a victim of or are somehow connected to traumas like date-rape, eating disorders or suicide. One would think that the peer counseling groups would be the most utilized and applauded organizations on campus.

Surprisingly, and somewhat disturbingly, the peer counseling groups are painfully under-utilized. Although most of the groups are open in some capacity throughout the night and are open the majority of days in the week, and Room 13 is open every night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., these groups rarely receive more than two visits or calls per night and often go a whole night without any interaction, at all.

It seems unlikely that the source of this quiet on the peer counseling front is the unusually strong mental and psychological health of the Harvard community. We may be uber-students in many respects, but we still struggle with problems and deal with tragedy. Granted, there remains a social stigma attached to counseling in any form, even that non-threatening variety that comes from your peers. However, I believe that the root of the under-utilization of peer counseling groups stems from a more structural source.

The peer counseling groups have had a strange and somewhat destructive relationship with the University. Although one would expect the University to support the peer counseling groups heartily, given that these groups provide a necessary service to the very students the administration purportedly serves, the University has all but denuded the peer counseling groups of any organized outreach.

A bit of history: In the dark ages before this year's seniors were involved with this esteemed institution, there was no system of mandatory outreaches. Peer counseling groups could poster to high heaven, but there was no structural way to reach the student population. Fortunately, upon realizing the inadequacy of this means of communication, the administration instituted a policy of mandatory outreaches that the seniors and juniors remember. The numbers of people dropping in and calling peer counseling groups rose markedly as a result.

The problem with the system was that many students avoided or were not comfortable with the outreaches. However, instead of imaginatively and interactively exploring new means of spreading the word about counseling on campus, the administration unilaterally forbade the peer counseling groups from contacting the first years and ended all mandatory outreaches. Members of the classes of '99 and '00 likely never attended an outreach and all too many have no idea about the variety of counseling opportunities and resources on campus. Not surprisingly, the numbers of students who have taken advantage of the peer counseling groups on campus has dropped.

Mid-way through this semester, in the face of dropping numbers and the virtual paralysis of the peer counselors, the administration shifted their policy slightly. Peer counseling groups can now initiate contact with a proctor group's peer counseling representative, but the peer reps still have no obligation to do outreaches and are only provided with the barest outlines of a job description.

The University claims that outreaches bring problems to the surface and then leave the proctors to deal with the newly discovered issues alone. A strange claim to make, on two counts. First, the issues exist whether or not peer counseling groups discuss them in an open format. It seems incredibly strange to me that the University, as committed as it is to an open intellectual forum and the free discussion of ideas in the academic arena, would want to limit discussion in the much more real arena of life experience and human interaction. Second, the peer counseling groups exist for the very purpose of dealing with the issues that arise through their outreaches. They are not cruelly leaving the proctors to fend for themselves; they are providing the proctors, and more importantly, their (and all) students with a safe and healthy place to begin to confront serious questions.

It is time for the University administration, the peer counselors and University Health Services to come together to reevaluate the structure of outreach and communication on this campus. The continued sanity of our students depends on it.

Talia Milgrom-Elcott's column appears on alternate Fridays.

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