BLANDING, Utah — Since the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, Utah State University Blanding has worked diligently to implement a Peer Mental Health Support Network for its campus to provide mental health resources that are needed for the students and rural campus community. COVID-19 caused severe anxiety, depression and loss of engagement for many students and other members of the community.
“Collectively, we used programming that encouraged positive mental health as a primary way to prevent stress, anxiety and other related symptoms,” said Priscilla Arungwa, director of students at USU Blanding. “Our team of students organized mental health week, created a breathing exercise program, and through our grant, we were able to purchase a mental health first aid kit called ‘My Pass Kit.’ Our peer mental health student workers were key to this program because they could see through the lens of their fellow students and identify what the student needed and what resources would be best. We found that students in need of mental health support gladly welcomed the support and check-in phone calls from fellow students.”
USU Blanding does not currently have an in-house mental health therapist or counseling center on campus. To help support USU Blanding students, the Utah Navajo Health System provides a therapist who works on campus once a week. Students can also visit the local UNHS clinic on days the therapist is not present on campus. Students can also utilize USU Logan’s online Counseling and Psychological Services.
“Everyone has the right to be listened to and heard,” said Casidee Coombs, a peer mental health specialist at USU Blanding. “Just because no one else can heal or do your inner work for you, doesn’t mean you can, should, or need to do it alone. People feel connected to society or on a deeper level when they are loved. We just have to give people the opportunity to express themselves.”
The Peer Mental Health Support Network has been funded through the Multicultural Rural Mental Health Grant under the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs. Priscilla Arungwa served as the principal investigator on the grant. The co-primary investigators on this project included Sam Arungwa, a prevention scientist and assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice, Charlie Bayles, clinical assistant professor of social work, and Shilo Martinez, Student Life assistant.
The program objectives included:
- Matching each student of concern with a Mental Health Peer Prevention Specialist;
- Each student of concern will work with their peer mentor to create a Wellness Recovery Action Plan to prevent and address mental health concerns and risk factors;
- Documentation of Program’s work through various software;
- Programming and Outreach Events to spread Mental Health Awareness for USU Blanding faculty and students.
In addition to providing services, the Peer Mental Health Support Network has also created activities on campus for students including table events, seminars, surveys, Wellness Recovery Action Plan outreach, training, mental health week and student success outreach opportunities. These activities aimed to help students with mental health awareness as well as provide the resources needed for students to get the help they need.
The Peer Mental Health Support Network has seen several success stories already. One included a faculty member reporting that a student’s parent had recently died. The network reached out to the student and helped them through the difficult time. They delivered a care kit to the student when they came back to school and spoke to the student about seeing a therapist. The student was very open to the idea and was quickly connected to a mental health professional that same day.
Along with helping students, USU Blanding hopes to spread the word about mental health and help other schools implement their own version of the network. In May, Priscilla and Sam Arungwa, Casidee Coombs, Sean Wyles, Hasbah Bitsui, Kim Keith and Alicia Galten all presented at the 2022 Higher Education Suicide Prevention Conference. The conference is a collaborative organization with the united goal of developing and implementing strategies to reduce suicide on college campuses and improve the overall wellness of students. The USU presenters facilitated a workshop to other campuses who were interested in implementing their own versions of the Peer Mental Health Support Network.
“This was an important moment when we decided to come together as a campus community to prevent suicide,” Sam Arungwa said. “It is also empowering for us to learn that suicide is preventable and that we can save lives by changing our own behavior. Prevention is such a powerful way for us to love one another.”
USU Blanding plans to continue its Peer Mental Health Support Network program in the coming semesters.
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