Getting by with some help from their friends and classmates

February 28, 2019
peer helpers

It can be hard enough for high school students to manage homework or get to class on time. But when you throw in a breakup with a significant other or trouble at home, getting through a school day might be unbearable on your own. That’s where a Peer Helper comes in.

Stillwater Area High School (SAHS) has recently deployed a group of Peer Helpers to support and guide classmates through the social and emotional complexities of high school. The Peer Helpers are normal students, representing a wide range of social groups. Some are athletes, others are musicians, and some aren’t involved in any school clubs or activities. What they all have in common, however, is an empathetic nature and the ability to listen.

“Some students just have the gift and other students go to them with their problems,” said Mike Kaul, a social studies teacher who helped introduce the program to SAHS. “We identify those students in different peer groups and give them training and support.”

The 25 Peer Helpers include representatives from each grade level - freshmen through seniors. They took part in an intense training this past fall to learn how to be better listeners, and how to create a safe and confidential environment. They also learned when it is OK to break confidentiality to ensure a classmate receives the help they need. In addition, the students participate in monthly trainings on topics like depression, drug and alcohol use and self-help. They make themselves available to their peers throughout the school day, scheduling appointments during lunch, Flex Time or other free times to meet one-on-one with their classmates.

“Our school is so big, but we bring it together,” said Mia Pariseau, a senior. “It’s good for students to know there are other resources beside administrators and counselors. There are classmates you can talk to.”

The Peer Helpers are available to work with students on both the little and big challenges they face. In addition to helping mediate the occasional misunderstanding between friends, the students are combating the stigma of mental illness by making it comfortable for kids to open up about topics like anxiety, depression, eating disorders or even self-harm.

“The amount of mental health concerns - it’s scary,” said Annika Turnquist, a senior. “There is so much more our students deal with than we even know with all the technology and social media pressures. Kids might not talk to adults, but they talk to peers and friends.”

When issues come up that are bigger than the Peer Helpers can handle on their own, they refer the student to a school counselor or other adult who can help - sometimes going along with an initial appointment to help advocate on behalf of their classmate.

“We’re not counselors,” said Nikhil Kumarin, a senior. “We’re not going to fix you. We listen, support and guide students to figure out what the best option is.”

Since launching the Peer Helper program in November, students have already documented more than 260 helping sessions with their peers. As the new program grows in the future, they plan to expand their reach by doing more to promote themselves within the school community.

Peer Helpers give students a safe place to talk through the issues they’re facing. But for the 25 volunteers, the program is helping them develop essential life skills in communication and problem solving. They’re developing empathy and deep compassion for others and learning to collaborate in real-life situations.

“These are the young people who will be counselors, nurses - those in helping professions,” Kaul said. “This is a way to invest in them. When you create the right environment, something magical happens.”