Peer counseling in an academic setting

Peer counselors help students who may or may not have a campus counselor

As a student, who do you first approach when you find that you have a problem or when you are worried about something? A friend or a trusted adult? Chances are it is your friend, because you believe that your friend will understand your problem much better than, say, your parents or a teacher.

As an adolescent or a young adult, it is easier to talk about your issues with someone who is of your age or has a mindset similar to yours, rather than an adult. This makes peer counseling very effective, as it helps the adolescent comfortable to take that first step in addressing their problem.

What is peer counseling?

Peer counseling is a helping process that involves one-on-one interaction or interaction between members of a group, who have several things in common. In an academic setting, it usually refers to students helping their fellow students. It is a way of relating, responding and helping people, aimed at exploring thoughts, feelings, issues and concerns, with the hope of reaching a clear understanding and make informed decisions.

How does peer counseling help students?

As a student, you may have several stressors stressors in their lives. These may include, but not be limited to, academic stress, pressure to choose your careers, peer pressure, relationship problems, body image issues, substance abuse and addiction. It may not be possible for everyone to approach a professional counselor with ease, due to various reasons including unavailability, and the stigma associated with asking for help. In such cases, a peer counselor can help you or your friends with several issues such as:

  • Conflict resolution
  • Building confidence and self-esteem,
  • Academic difficulties, exam stress
  • Adjustment issues with teachers, other students
  • Issues adjusting to hostel life
  • Ragging, bullying and many more.

Approaching a peer counselor in several cases is effective, because the other person is able to understand and relate to your issues. And as they are trained, peer counselors provide listening, support and alternatives to the students, while avoiding dishing out advice.

Peer counselors are trained

Peer counselors are trained in communication, listening skills, assertiveness, ethics of peer counseling, issues of confidentiality and breach of it, boundaries regarding helping others, and basic counseling skills. A peer counselor is also trained on when to refer the person to a professional counselor. Though they receive training, they are not certified counselors. For campuses with a counselor, a peer counselor becomes a bridge between the counselor and student. In the absence of a school/college counselor, peer counselors help their fellow students understand their emotional and behavioral disturbances and work on solutions. In some cases, they also refer them to a professional counselor in their area.

Even with the training, a student should have certain qualities to become a peer counselor.

  • Active listening skills, without being intrusive
  •  and sensitivity
  • They must keep the student's information confidential, not gossip about it
  • Good communication skills and the ability to dig deep into a student's psyche
  • Amiable in nature

More importantly, they should be innately interested in helping the other student with their issues.

Peer counselors also conduct awareness campaigns in their respective schools/colleges on mental health issues, address stigma and discrimination, myths about mental illnesses and so on.   

Peer counselors gain too

It is not just the fellow students, but peer counselors themselves make positive gains during their training and practice.

  • Some foreign universities ask for NGO/volunteer experience. Students can list peer counseling experience in their resume when applying to such institutions.
  • Increases their self esteem and problem-solving skills.
  • Teaches leadership skills.
  • Helps them learn empathy, respect and other life skills.

Colleges with peer counselor groups

Sunshine — Peer counseling group at IIT, Hyderabad

Counseling centre, IIT Gandhinagar, has student guides and student coordinators

'Your Dost: An emotional support system', the counseling centre of IIT Guwahati. Student guides are called Saathi. 

VISHWAS centre for counseling, Jain University, Bangalore. (Interested students from other academic institutions can also approach this centre for training in peer counseling)