Although Southern Utah University already offers a variety of resources to students to aid in mental health wellbeing, last spring SUU mental health counselor Andrea Donovan developed an additional resource to help students.
Donovan worked with SUU Counseling and Psychological Services to design the Mental Health Peer Program — a service where students in need of support can schedule a meetup with a mentor to vent, connect or just chat.
CAPS provided extensive training to three upperclassmen with a history of psychology classes to serve as “Mental Health Support Peers” to offer referrals to other CAPS groups and resources, but ultimately how the peer provides support depends on the student.
For some, this could mean meeting with a Mental Health Support Peer weekly to catch up over coffee, or for others it could be just a one-off conversation on a stroll through campus.
These three upperclassmen meet with SUU students as little or as often as the students desire. If students are uneasy about meeting with the Mental Health Support Peers due to COVID-19, calling and texting is also available to offer a listening ear to those struggling.
Karina Nay, a senior majoring in psychology and family life and human development has been a Peer since the program started in 2020. Nay assists students by tracking goals and setting healthy boundaries. She offers support as a Mental Health Support Peer by being a listening ear for students.
Mental Health Support Peers are required to complete a training led by CAPS clinicians as well as an institutional training and Mental Health First Aid Training. They also must participate in formal program evaluations, attend supervision and peer team meetings and maintain standards of professional conduct in accordance with campus and SUU CAPS policies, standards and guidelines.
The team is overseen by Health and Wellness coordinator Riley Reynolds and Donovan.
Donovan piloted the program last spring to “amplify the SUU Student Affairs values” and to diversify and increase mental wellness support on campus.
“I hope that students feel accompanied in their life journeys, appreciated for the strengths they have,” Donovan said. “I hope students feel connected with, collaborate with peers to develop the skills and tools they are seeking and gain supportive referrals.”
Although the Mental Health Support Peers are available for students to go to in times of need, Donovan made it clear that the program is meant to be an additional resource for students at SUU to receive mental health and wellness support, not as the primary solution to a student’s problems.
“The national research data on university mental health support programs specifies that while peer programs are not effective as a standalone mental wellness care, that they are very effective as an embedded part of a coordinated, comprehensive and connective path to clinical care and therapeutic alliance,” Donovan said.
According to Donovan, SUU Student Affairs has gained recognition as a national leader in the area of peer support and may serve as a “means for responsive program review able to contribute to the best practices in mental health peer support programs.”
Nay will be graduating from SUU at the end of the semester and is studying to become a therapist. She became a Mental Health Support Peer after she heard about the internship opportunity through the psychology department.
Nay specializes in dialectical behavioral therapy, a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that is used to change negative thinking patterns. After graduating from a DBT group herself, she co-facilitated a program at Southwest Behavioral Health Center.
“DBT helps students find balance and result in a potentially more effective and happy life,”
In addition to working with students at SUU, Nay’s other responsibility as a Mental Health Support Peer is currently to work on outreach projects to help spread the word across campus about this new program.
She is also helping put together a program called “Mindfulness Mondays,” where students will be able to participate in quick and accessible mindfulness exercises between classes.
Nay works with students by going on a walk and talking or accompanying them to a club or social gathering to help students meet people.
“I enjoy being someone students can come and talk to. I hope to provide a nonjudgmental space where they can find support,” Nay said.
Tatton is a senior studying psychology and family services. He has been a Mental Health Support Peer for three semesters and plans to receive a doctorate in psychology and become a therapist in the future.
Tatton specializes in emotion regulation and teaching students mindfulness exercises and grounding techniques.
“I like to make lists with students of different things that they may be struggling with so we can address each of their concerns and then go from there to offer resources that may help them,” Tatton said.
Tatton is working on the mental health toolkit that is on the CAPS website to aid students in finding other groups or programs that may help them with what they are going through. He is also planning to create YouTube videos to offer advice in coping with a variety of issues students may be facing.
“We are a great resource that not enough people know about,” Tatton said. “We are always happy to help in any way we can, even if it’s just being someone that can listen.”
Carvajal-Lopez is a junior majoring in psychology and minoring in Spanish and women and gender studies. This is their second semester as a Mental Health Support Peer. Carvajal-Lopez plans to study to receive a Master of Public Administration degree from SUU.
“My strength is offering diversity. I am a member of LGBTQIA+ community and am the president of the Pride and Equality Club,” Carvajal-Lopez said. “I bring knowledge surrounding marginalized communities and deal with communications when it comes to my students.”
With their leadership position in the PAEC, Carvajal-Lopez can help connect students to resources offered by the Center of Diversity and Inclusion.
Carvajal-Lopez is working on a handbook for students and staff regarding the program that highlights the policies that the Mental Health Support Peers work within.
For more information on the SUU CAPS Peer Mental Health Support Program and to find additional counseling and psychological services, visit the CAPS website.
“There is always room to be happier or even more mentally healthy,” Nay said. “Some students say, ‘Well I’m not bad enough to go to therapy or get medications,’ but if there’s a want for something to change, people can come and better themselves, whatever that looks like to them.”
Story by: Elizabeth Armstrong
Photos courtesy of SUU CAPS and Mitch Quartz