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Mental Health

The Benefits of Peer Support

Jennifer Lund

Reprinted from "Supported Education" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, No. 17, p. 26

I, along with another staff member in the Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program (PDP) at York University, co-facilitate an academic support group that meets for ten weeks every term. The group provides a forum for students with psychiatric disabilities to discuss their experiences on campus. It’s structured around guest speakers, videos and discussions on a wide range of topics relevant to successfully managing school, while prioritizing one’s mental health.

A learning-skills specialist visits each term to discuss issues such as procrastination or strategies for preparing for tests. We may also go on a tour of the library or to the adaptive technology lab. In addition, students may want to be familiarized with the location of the financial aid office or the Registrar’s office. We show tapes from the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario discussing recovery, medication management and stigma. While students may be managing a wider range of mental disorders, the topics in these talks are chosen for their universal applicability. In addition, we show a film written and directed by a student in the PDP called Ode to Learning, a docudrama following a first-year student with a psychiatric disability as she negotiates academic accommodations.

The group can be a powerful source for developing the skills of self-advocacy, which are especially important, since York is a large university that is often very intimidating. Within the group, mature students and upper level PDP students act informally as mentors for incoming students. Often this is a student’s only opportunity, outside of hospital or day hospital, to interact with others who have similar experiences and concerns. Students often remark on how ‘normal’ everyone else is! This can be a powerful impetus for students to understand their right to accommodations as justified, and to help people maintain an ongoing commitment to wellbeing that will become so important to student success.

Students watch the struggles of others in the group, perhaps permitting them to accept their own challenges. So often students with psychiatric disabilities want to keep up with their peers, and in so doing, jeopardize the success of their progress as part-time students. Watching their colleagues validates their struggles in a way that we as service providers cannot. While I self-disclose my own psychiatric disability, and my status as a doctoral student, my experiences may be too removed and not as influential as that of their peers in the group.

While we emphasize that the group is not a therapeutic one but one of academic support, students usually comment on the wider applicability of the issues that arise through the group. The general format of speakers, films and discussion remains consistent, with variability in content depending on the group’s needs. We end with a sharing of resources that is always very inspiring, and often unpredictable. It is interesting to watch a more rigid student writing down the titles of books on spirituality, or to watch a student who chose to observe, join in with a myriad of suggestions. As we began the group again for the winter session, a student commented on how striking it was for her to hear that everyone in the room was facing similar challenges. She felt rejected by fellow students to whom she had disclosed her disability. She had come to the group overcome by feelings of loneliness, and left with a feeling of mutual support.

 
About the author
Jennifer is a staff member of the Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program at York University in Toronto, Ontario

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