In addition to volunteering as peer counselors for one-on-one sessions, AJ and Caitlin both serve as facilitators of the Graduate and Professional Student Support Group offered through the PSC. AJ, who is in the second year of his Master’s as well as the second year of his involvement with the Peer Support Centre, is also the Centre’s Graduate Student Coordinator. It’s an exciting time, he says, to be part of the organization. “Visits have increased from last year to this year. It’s been exponential.” When I ask what that means for the Centre, AJ thinks for a moment and offers the number 300: “I think this year we’ve had over 300 visits so far.” And with volunteerism having increased too, bringing the staff to over 60 volunteers, it means that the Peer Support Centre is connecting more and more members of the Queen’s community.
How does the Centre put people in touch? Between 3 p.m. and 1 a.m. every day, the Peer Support Centre is available for drop-ins, by scheduled appointments, and by phone. Support groups that are each focused on a specific theme also run three times a week. Based on feedback from the undergraduate, graduate, and professional students who take advantage of the Centre’s services, peer counselors have developed a Depression Support Group which runs on Mondays from 7:00 – 8:30 pm (JDUC Room 352), a Stress and Anxiety Support Group which happens on Wednesdays from 5:00 – 6:30 pm (JDUC Polson Room), and a Graduate Student Support Group which is offered on Thursdays from 6:30 – 8:00 pm (Ban Righ Centre). Not only do AJ and Caitlin facilitate the latter but also they initiated the concept this past Fall 2011. The group was up and running by January 2012. (If it’s alright with you, I’ve deleted this quote.)
While facilitating the Depression and Anxiety support groups, AJ and Caitlin noticed that oftentimes grad students brought unique concerns to the discussion, so they decided to pilot the new group dedicated to meeting grad students’ needs. “We’re developing new material for every week, and attendance is always fluctuating. So far, we’ve focused a lot on time management and stress management,” AJ elaborates. The PSC website further details that this group covers topics ranging from “funding, and managing finances” to “supervisor-student relationships, work-life balance, meeting people and getting involved.” Since group attendees contribute to the agenda, sessions also often touch on issues of depression, stress, and anxiety – issues that can be relevant for all students as well as their friends and family, who are also welcome to attend.
So what does being a peer counselor mean for AJ and Caitlin? In addition to benefitting from broad, intensive training – including Positive Space training, disAbilities services training, training from Four Directions Aboriginal Centre, Mental Health Awareness and Response training, and much more – experience with providing peer support represents a chance to be better in their future careers. As AJ waits to hear back from his med school interviews, he feels confident that his volunteer experience has taught him “how to use communication effectively and how empathize with what others are going through.” In Caitlin’s preparation for a career as a genetic counselor, familiarity with handling sensitive topics in a confidential manner is invaluable. “The skills we gain as peer counselors are widely transferable,” Caitlin notes, “They’re applicable in so many situations.” Of course the work of a peer counselor can also be challenging, stressful, and sometimes difficult, but the Centre’s management provides support to counselors, too. The PSC holds weekly meetings for the peer counselors to address their concerns and to brainstorm ways to keep moving the Centre forward.
Another way that the Peer Support Centre stays so engaged with students’ needs is by continually building relationships with professional community services. Caitlin reminds me that the PSC exists “not to give expert advice or to replace professional counselling, but to give support on a peer level and to help students navigate an extensive system of resources.” These resources include services ranging from Queen’s own Health, Counseling, and DisAbility Services (HCDS) to Frontenac Community Mental Health Services and the AMS Food Centre. “Visiting a professional can be intimidating,” Caitlin continues, “but students say the PSC is an approachable service with people who can really relate to each other. So the barrier to seeking support can disappear.” AJ offers an illustration: “It’s like a bridge to connect people with all these resources that are available but which they may not know about.”
In the end, AJ reflects, being a peer counselor is all about relating to people. It’s about “figuring out their troubles and issues and being there to listen and understand what it’s like to go through difficulties.” It’s also a rewarding way to get involved in your campus community, offers Caitlin. And what’s next for the Peer Support Centre? The two volunteers list several goals on the horizon: satellite Centre event for Engineering students in the ILC and on West campus for easier access, more collaboration with the SGPS, and bigger support groups. The busy service has some ambitious plans. According to Caitlin and AJ, being involved with the Peer Support Centre is a kind of mirror to the experience of grad school overall; it is an adventure in multitasking. Whether as a peer counselor or as a service user, being a part of the PSC allows students to share ideas and experience, make connections with communities beyond the campus, and ultimately, teaches you about yourself.
The Peer Support Centre provides a safe, non-judgmental, and strictly confidential environment for students to speak with empathetic peer counsellors. It is open 7 days a week as a drop-in service or by appointment from 3:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. in Room 34 of the JDUC. Reach the Centre by phone at 613-533-6000, ext. 75111 and visit www.queenspeersupport.com. No issue is too big or too small. The PSC seeks to ensure that students know there is always someone to talk to, that they are not alone, and that support is here for them.
For those interested in volunteering with the PSC, the next round of hiring will occur in September. Information will be posted on the website.