The COVID-19 pandemic has left enduring effects on the mental health of college students across the country, with one in five young Americans reporting that the pandemic has had a significant negative impact on their overall mental health. In response to the negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tufts looks to student organizations and peer educators to help promote student mental health on campus and to aid students in their transition back to in-person activities and classes.
Peer education is an approach that relies on peers who receive special training and education in order to promote positive change in its members. The concept of peer education was first founded at the University of Florida in order to help prevent alcohol abuse on college campuses. Since then, peer education has expanded to focus on other sensitive topics, such as sexual assault prevention, safety and mental health.
According to Erica Schonman, the Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services mental health promotion specialist, CMHS recognizes the important role that peers can play in communicating health messages towards other students.
“Students can just communicate in a way that sometimes staff can't,” Schonman said. “A message coming from a friend is going to sound really different than a message that’s coming from a staff person, and so I think we all really understand the value here that they bring.”
Schonman’s role is to support the mission of CMHS in promoting student mental health through non-clinical work and outreach to students. Some of the organizations that Schonman helps to oversee include the Mental Health Reps, Project Connect and Active Minds.
The Mental Health Reps are a group of students who work directly with CMHS staff in order to advocate for mental health support, reduce stigma and promote the emotional wellbeing of Tufts students. There are currently nine Mental Health Reps, including junior Rebecca Quaye who was one of the first members to join the program in fall 2021.
Quaye decided to join the Mental Health Reps because of her passion for mental health, especially when she noticed how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the emotional well-being of her peers. She also wanted to be a resource for fellow Black students in the Tufts community.
“I came into sophomore year kind of wanting to make sure that we all had access to the resources that CMHS gives,” Quaye said. “I think that especially for me, my goal was definitely to advocate for the Black students on campus, and how I can help inform them about the things that CMHS offers and also, just create events where our mental health is being accommodated for.”
The Mental Health Reps meet weekly for two hours to design and develop their own programming. According to Schonman, they also invite guest speakers to present on public health topics and careers in order to inform their outreach.
The Mental Health Rep splits into different committees based on the interests of its club members. The three committees for this year include managing academic stress, collaborating with the Division of Student Diversity and Inclusion and navigating mental health journeys.
Quaye is currently working on the DSDI committee. Last spring, she helped in leading a workshop titled Reshaping the Narrative on Black Mental Health on March 3. Alongside CMHS Graduate Student Clinician Kalo Sokoto, Quaye led a conversation on Black joy, campus resources and imposter syndrome of Black students at Tufts. Quaye explained that she found putting together this workshop to be a really rewarding experience.
“I'm glad it was as successful as it was,” Quaye said. “I hadn’t seen a student-run event for Black students about mental health so that was very important to me.”
Grace Jung is another Mental Health Rep who just joined the program this fall. Jung appreciates the diversity of backgrounds, majors and experiences that each Mental Health Rep contributes to the organization.
“It’s a great group,” Jung said. “I probably would have never met any of them if it wasn’t for the Mental Health Reps. So, because we come from so many different parts of the Tufts community, we have so many ideas. It's just a great experience being [in] a room of just people who want to promote mental health [at] Tufts.”
Jung is currently working on the academic stress management committee. Jung explained that the committee is developing a new project for professors to show their support in promoting student mental health.
“What we want to do is build a poster … that just signifies that this professor will be a safe space to talk about mental health, things like anxiety about tests or depression,” Jung said.
The Mental Health Reps also helps Tufts CMHS in leading workshops to present to clubs or other organizations on campus. Some of the topics these workshops cover are stress management, helping a friend who may be struggling with mental health or the consequences of toxic positivity.
Jung hopes that the Mental Health Reps can continue to build their presence on campus and that more clubs and groups utilize their available workshops.
Another peer-led group on campus is Project Connect, which seeks to build social connections and foster communities among Tufts undergraduate and graduate students. Project Connect is led by facilitators who help lead conversations with four to six peers over the course of six sessions.
Junior Theseus Lim, one of the facilitators of Project Connect, explained he was interested in joining this program after experiencing his first year of college during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I didn't get to meet that many people my freshman year,” Lim said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, this seems like a good way to do it.’ I've just kept doing it because I've had really good experiences getting to know people.”
Senior Zaimarie Vela-Santana, Lim’s co-facilitator, explained that she was inspired to get involved with Project Connect to find a sense of community for both herself and others.
“I think as someone who spent the last few years as a child development major learning a lot about the importance of community and wellbeing, … I just was very interested by the concept of Project Connect,” Vela-Santana said. “[I] thought that being a part of it would be a really good way of not only helping myself find a community, but also helping others find that sense of community on campus.”
The facilitators of Project Connect are trained in moderating conversation flow and group dynamics, as well as have weekly meetings. Lim explains that CMHS provides facilitators with a set list of questions and that Project Connect offers a casual space to interact with like-minded students.
Vela-Santana appreciates how Project Connect introduced her to other students and how important social interactions are during college.
“I think having those interactions with peers is important because college can be a pretty isolating experience for many people,” Vela-Santana said. “So I think having intentional spaces like Project Connect where you can get a little reminder each week that there are people who are genuinely curious about your day or want to have deep conversations can really make a difference.”
According to Schonman, Project Connect plays an important role in building a community at Tufts for students.
“We know that having strong connections and a sense of community on campus are very important protective factors against things like self harm and death by suicide so programming like [Project Connect] can enhance connections,” Schonman said.
Lim has enjoyed his three semesters of being a Project Connect facilitator, and hewould like to see the program expand to include a more diverse set of participants, including more students in STEM-related fields, as well as see participants use their experiences beyond Project Connect.
“I just hope that after it's over, people will continue to have these kinds of conversations with not only the people who are in their group, but other people that they meet in the future,” Lim said.
Peer education groups give students the opportunity to engage in conversations about important and sensitive topics. Jung explains that while peer-led programming is not group therapy, it can still help reduce stigma surrounding mental health on Tufts campuses.
“I definitely think there is still a stigma surrounding mental health, but the fact that we even have such a group of Mental Health Reps, I think shows that we're taking a good step into fostering more conversations … and just being more aware about [how] mental health is a part of everyone's health,” Jung said.
Schonman sees great value in peer education, and loves that her job allows her to develop programming and outreach with dedicated students who are passionate about mental health.
“I think there's a huge benefit to working with students,” Schonman said. “[They] will know the student experience better than I can ever hope to, and so there's a lot of value in working directly with students to support other students.”