… Provide Effective Peer Support Services to Teens

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Life Line: Students in training to be LifeSavers peer counselors discuss a “lifetime timeline.”

Photo: Ted Crail

Judy Ashby found that after her son committed suicide, she had few places to turn for help and support – and realized that her son had had even fewer. So she created a suicide prevention organization in Carbondale, Ill., following the best model she found: a peer support network in which youths played the roles of listener and problem-solver.

Judging by anecdotes, it’s a model that seems to work. Youths sometimes respond to the intervention of other youths better than to that of adults. But getting a youth-led counseling group started, then training youths to be there for one another, presents significant challenges, from getting school and community support to finding the right kids for a sensitive job.

With adults on the sidelines, youths become more open and comfortable, says Jessica Grimm with the Westchester Community Network’s Youth Forum in Syracuse, N.Y. “It’s reassuring to talk to someone your age who has gone through what you’ve gone through.”

“Often the best advice these kids get is the advice they receive from one another, not the adults,” says Brenda Spurlin, executive director of Toledo Ray, a support group for gay and lesbian teens in northwest Ohio. “I’m amazed at how open and helpful the kids are with one another.”

Recruiting youths

To get started, advises Ashby, who founded LifeSavers Training Corp., be sure to recruit youth counselors from different cliques and walks of life (i.e. jocks, preps, geeks, etc.), so that any youth who needs peer support can find a counselor with whom he or she feels comfortable.

Then create a structure that lets the youths steer the content and direction of meetings, even if they’re not actually running the group. “Young people don’t want another program,” says Grimm from the Youth Forum. “Don’t couch it in those terms or describe it to them as ‘curriculum-based.’ It has to be peer-run and peer-governed.”

Several groups do, however, use young adults who participated as youths, then returned as volunteers. They bring an established rapport with the kids, and in the case of Toledo Ray, some of them are in partner relationships. “These kids often don’t have models for relationships of their own,” Spurlin says.

In the peer support groups run by the Idaho Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health, the groups’ adult facilitators are often young adults who have aged out of the children’s mental health system. The young peer facilitators act as discussion leaders who encourage participants to talk about the issues of living with mental illness – either their own or that of their family members.

The peer support framework is essential, says the federation’s youth coordinator, Nicole Gustafson. “The kids can be themselves and not feel like they’re being judged.”

Ashby says this setup benefits counselors as well. “The kids find out just how much alike everyone is beneath the layers of ethnicity, race, religion and political orientation,” she says.

Plus, the counselors learn important life skills by helping peers work through crises. “They learn problem-solving skills that will prevent future issues down the road,” Ashby says.

Youth counselors also learn to understand the often unsettling behavior of peers, realizing that kids who act out are not necessarily “bad” but are likely troubled by some underlying issue. “Kids want to talk,” Ashby says. “We teach our peer counselors how a few well-placed questions can bring a student to resolution.”

The challenges of getting started

Peer-supported crisis prevention programs can be a hard sell, particularly if one is trying to work directly in the schools, as LifeSavers does. “Justifying the expense to schools is hard,” Ashby says. “While ours is primarily a suicide prevention program, we try to emphasize that it’s life skills training for the kids who participate in the retreats.”

For Toledo Ray, the biggest issue was finding a place for kids to meet; no local businesses wanted to have anything to do with appearing to support a gay and lesbian support group for teens.

Volunteer turnover is also an issue. Spurlin, Toledo Ray’s founder, says most gays who move to Toledo are there for school or jobs and don’t stay very long, so the organization is constantly on the lookout for gay adults and parents of gays to help provide support.

Getting youths to participate in the meetings was tough at first, too, Spurlin says. The group tried all kinds of unusual recruiting methods, including sticking fliers in library books on gay and lesbian issues. Eventually, Toledo Ray grew as a result of word of mouth. Participants are now recruited mostly by other youths.

Deborah Huso is a freelance writer in Blue Grass, Va. dhuso@youthtoday.org.