Updated: Nov 2, 2020
“There’s a considerable gap between someone suffering from mental health issues alone with no help and them actually getting professional services,” says Paula Barbaresso, workplace mental health consultant. “That’s a gap that needs to be bridged,” she adds, “and that bridge is peer support services.”
With the increasing demand for mental health support in youth communities across Canada, the time is ripe, says the co-founder of the Canadian Peer Support Network, for an initiative to offer peer support resources across the country.
Co-founder and McGill medical student Mark Sorin says his own journey started when a close friend was struggling with their mental health. “I wanted to be there for them but didn’t know what to do. I felt helpless,” he told The Suburban. Sorin searched for resources and found McGill’s Peer Support Centre which trains students and allows them to meet with other students in a confidential service. People can come into chat in a non-directional, non-judgmental environment, just two strangers talking in a safe space where someone can listen “and truly hear them.”
Sorin was impressed and along with Barbaresso and Masters (psychiatry) student Pascale Bockelmann, launched the larger pan-Canadian initiative last November. “We see a real potential to bring these skills we have learned to young adults and students across Canada so they can teach others.”
The numbers are startling: “Even before the pandemic we saw that Canadian youth were struggling with mental issues in large numbers” Barbaresso. “The semester before the pandemic, 70% of students were experiencing overwhelming anxiety, 52% said they were so depressed they found it difficult to function, and even 16% had considered suicide.”
They formed a team consisting of people from many diverse disciplines, from business to chemistry, but all dedicated to the notion that students can help each other, that there is a need to fill.
“I’m worried that it’s seen as normal for youth to struggle, that their challenges are not as important” says Barbaresso. “And now it’s becoming very common for people to dismiss their feelings, but peer support is about validating those emotions, and rejecting the notion that young people will ‘just get over it’.”
Most people offer informal peer support to their friends by listening and letting them share their struggles, but there are skills that can be learned to be more effective and can be applied universally.
So what’s the difference between lending an ear and offering peer support? “Well, active listening is a large part,” says Barbaresso. “You have to be comfortable in silence, letting the other person enjoy the majority of the conversation, and follow an 80-20 rule.” As for probing questions, “we rarely dive in deeply, but rather just let them sound themselves out.” Body language is also important.
The CPSN offers virtual workshops, exploring key active listening skills “to transition people from passive awareness about mental health to being active players in mental health,” says Sorin, adding that peer support is not in lieu of mental health services but as a complement to them. The bridge.
Sessions employ interactive experiential work and case studies, and are conducted via Zoom or Webex, but they will accommodate any platform.
Barbaresso says it’s worrisome when people feel they have nowhere to turn, or difficulty accessing whatever professional services are available. “To be able to turn to a friend or classmate with the right training can make all the difference in their lives.” The group says if most anyone can learn emergency life saving skills such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation with virtually no medical training, then people should be similarly encouraged to learn to provide basic mental health support.
A registered non-profit organization with some three dozen volunteers, the CPSN focuses on the 17-30 age group in youth, community and sports organizations, student societies and corporate Canada. Services are provided primarily in English, but French training is also available.
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