One Way to Improve Smith’s Counseling Services? More Peer Support

Photo by Lena Wilson ’16, Contributing Photographer | The high-stress college environment causes many students to seek help from the Office of Counseling Services.

Photo by Lena Wilson ’16, Contributing Photographer | The high-stress college environment causes many students to seek help from the Office of Counseling Services.

Alex Mills ’17
Contributing Writer

It is 30 minutes before closing time at Neilson, and, as I walk through the group study area, the atmosphere of anxiety and exhaustion is tangible. I overhear a frantic phone call about an upcoming exam, see several friends considering relocating to Ford Hall to try to finish a group presentation and witness a full-blown, tearful meltdown about a disappointing grade on an essay.

When I finally leave the library, my own sense of self is equally fragile. On my walk home, I reflect on a recent article by Columbia University student Alistair Pearson. The article, titled “A Shout in the Darkness,” discussed the immense stress that students experience at elite colleges, focusing primarily on the way stress manifests itself at nighttime in particular. In addition to the lucid prose and compelling narrative of various students, the article caught my attention because it examined the importance of Nightline, a peer listening service. Nightline is a joint venture between Columbia and Barnard, and while Pearson notes its reputation as a resource for the severely depressed, he explains that students now turn to it for a wide variety of reasons. These reasons range from worries about financial aid and scholarship withdrawal to romantic issues, roommate conflicts, feelings of alienation, different types of mental illness and academic stress. The staff of Nightline is composed of students who have “undergone a comprehensive training program and are highly motivated,” and “many of them [are] personally familiar with mental illness among their family or friends.” Nightline operates every night from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. and is an easily accessible resource that allows students to voice issues and be listened to.

The rampant pressures of a demanding undergraduate curriculum as experienced by Columbia students is a common sentiment in colleges and universities everywhere. These pressures are no less prevalent or worrisome within the walls of our own campus.

Speaking from my own experience in Neilson and on behalf of many of my friends and acquaintances, there is often a noticeable decline in student morale later at night. This is when the reality of deadlines, impending projects and exams is felt most acutely.

For many Smithies, these academic stressors are compounded by other equally pressing concerns, such as geographic distance from family and feelings of exclusion from friend groups or house community. These can easily culminate in a still-darker experience – isolation with a lack of a close-knit support system.

Although an estimated 20 percent of students seek help from Counseling Services, and a variety of support groups are offered for specific groups – such as victims of sexual assault and international students – Smith would undoubtedly benefit from adopting some version of Nightline to offer emotional support during particularly stressful times.

The current structure of Counseling Services leaves plenty of room for a student-run listening service. Under the current structure, most students who attend counseling go once a week for a 45-minute appointment. While I am not trying to diminish the important work that Counseling Services is doing, it does not always fully align with the needs of the student community.

As an undergraduate who wished to remain anonymous explained, “Of course it’s helpful, but does it reflect the day-to-day reality, where I have institutionalized academic pressures and also family and financial concerns? I have to bottle up all of these problems because I only have that one time, once a week.”

In light of the fact that Counseling Services is exercising changes to better address student needs, I urge the implementation of a peer listening service at Smith so that students can receive much-needed support even when Counseling Services cannot accommodate them.

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