According to a National College Health Assessment (NCHA) survey of students at Miami University, more than 40 percent reported that stress is affecting their individual academic performance. With the added pressure of looking for a job in a bad economy, students are relying more than ever on each other.
At Miami, student HAWKS (Health Advocates for Wellness Knowledge and Skills) practice "good mental hygiene" in an effort to help their peers in distress, which is believed to be at the root of problems associated with drinking, drugs and risky sexual behavior.
"It's always been fairly easy to identify students who are struggling," said Stefanie Sliger, a senior social work major. "We can help our friends, but it's not our job to diagnose them. The challenge is knowing what to do next for them and finding ways to get them to that next level of wellness."
The work being done at Miami in student peer health education is drawing the attention of other campuses around the country. Sliger was selected to talk about Miami's program at the recent BACCHUS Network General Assembly in Columbus. BACCHUS is a university- and community-based network of peer educators focused on comprehensive health and safety. Her presentation "Gimme a Little Head Room" was developed in consultation with the university's student counseling service and is the student version of Miami's Campus Assistance Program (CAP), which guides faculty and staff on assisting students in distress.
"Our program started about a year ago with the focus on helping female students in sororities," said Leslie Haxby McNeill, assistant director of health education. "We quickly learned that it wasn't just sorority women who struggled with the notion of perfection, but our student body in general."
Miami's peer health educators are reaching out to fellow students dealing with the following problems impacting their academic work, according to the NCHA survey:
- Stress - 40.9 percent
- Sleep difficulties - 30.5 percent
- Concern for a troubled friend or family member - 25.1 percent
- Internet use/computer games - 19.4 percent
- Relationship difficulty - 17.6 percent
- Depression/anxiety disorder/seasonal affective disorder - 16.8 percent
According to McNeill, the peer-to-peer program has had more success than any other programs aimed at helping students.
"This is strictly about mental health and how students can be there for each other," said McNeill.
Sliger says the key is to speak to peers in private and not to appear judgmental. "You want to make sure your friends understand that you are concerned and want to help, and although you're not an expert, you can help them find one."
HAWKS offer this advice when dealing with a friend in distress:
- Inform your friend of campus community services that may be helpful
- Offer to help your friend take the first step, such as calling student counseling services
- Seek consultation for yourself from available resources for suggestions.
- Ask your friend about past challenging experiences; hearing how the person coped in other circumstances can provide useful information.
- Talk with your friend about mentors and people who he/she may be overlooking as potential helpers and supporters.
For more information on the HAWKS program or advice on helping a friend in distress, contact 529-8544.