Health & Wellness

Peer Advocacy is Important for Mental Illness, Experts Say

The Student Life section of Utah State Today highlights work written by the talented student journalists at Utah State University. Each week, the editor selects a story that has been published in The Utah Statesman for inclusion in Utah State Today.

By Alison Berg, USU Statesman,Tuesday, March 20, 2018 

Utah State University has spent the last several years making strides toward destigmatizing mental illness and promoting resources for students with mental health needs.

Many students around campus have taken steps toward becoming advocates for those with mental illnesses, and mental health experts at USU say peer-to-peer advocacy is an incredibly useful practice in supporting those with mental illness.

“Most of the time, when we share with another person something we’re distressed about, usually we really just want to connect and feel some validation and support,” said C.J. Sorenson, a professor of social work at USU. “That’s simple, but fundamental.”

Sorenson advises students faced with the task of helping a distressed friend to “listen and empathize,” then point the student to appropriate resources. Sorenson cautioned students to avoid taking on the role of a professional.

“I don’t think it’s wise for lay students to take on the role of professionals,” he said. “But I think it’s appropriate to ask someone else if they’re safe, if they need any support, and evaluate within that student if there might be something that they can do to provide support.”

A 2009-2015 study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles found that students surrounded by strong mental illness stigma are less likely to seek help than students in supportive atmospheres.

Bremen Acord, a social work student and the president of the USU National Alliance on Mental Illness, said a major goal of NAMI is to destigmatize mental illness. He said there is a  strong correlation between those facing stigma and those not receiving help.

Bremen Accord, president of NAMI at Utah State University. NAMI is a club that works to spread mental health awareness and understanding

Though peer advocacy is crucial in making sure students with mental illness are cared for, Sorenson said, advocacy must be done carefully, or it can produce negative effects.
“It’s important for students to educate themselves about what is already being done, what the real issues are, what the facts are,” he said.

USU psychology professor Tyler Renshaw agreed, emphasizing the importance of listening and empathizing, rather than immediately trying to fix the problem.

“Make sure you are really listening and really hearing people, and not immediately solving their problems,” he said, though he acknowledged this is difficult because of the human desire to solve problems.
If a student is told someone is experiencing significant distress such as suicidal thoughts, panic attack symptoms or other concerning behaviors outside of day-to-day emotions, they should be directed to appropriate counseling or academic resources, Renshaw said.

He added, however, that the person confiding their mental distress in a friend may have tried various resources, which is why he said it’s important to listen carefully and have a personal conversation. He suggests asking the person in need what resources and methods they have tried in the past, as well as what they are currently doing.

“You want to hear their problem from their perspective,” Renshaw said.

Students wanting to increase their advocacy skills can participate in question, persuade, response training — also called QPR, a suicide-prevention program. Students can also complete Upstander training, a sexual assault bystander intervention program.

The following resources are available on campus for students facing mental health issues:

  • Counseling and Psychological Services: (435) 797-1012
  • Sexual Assault and Anti-Violence Information: (435) 797-7273
  • USU Health and Wellness Center: (435) 797-1660
  • USU Marriage and Family Therapy: (435) 797-7430
     

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