Peer helpers – Creating change from the inside out

Published 7:00 am Friday, November 17, 2023

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Butler County schools have created an opportunity for students in emotional and mental distress by having a safe support system to lean on, and a simultaneous opportunity for students to compassionately support their peers. Willing students in each county school have been trained to be “peer helpers” so they may be a resource of help for other youth with issues they face. 

Michele Thigpen, the Butler County Mental Health Services Coordinator, said peer helpers are students who are trained to recognize when their peers may have a problem, to listen to fellow students confidentially and assist them with emotional, societal or academic struggles. 

“Peer helper programs are the heart of the school community by fostering empathy, support and unity among students throughout the district,” Thigpen said. “They offer a safe space for students to seek out guidance and promote mental wellness. This program empowers students to care for one another and creates a positive school environment.” 

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Experts say when young people have problems, they are far more likely to discuss them with their friends rather than their parents, teachers, ministers or other caregivers. Social media enables young people to share life-changing events with strangers without ever talking to someone within their own homes. 

Thigpen said the ultimate goal is to create invaluable life skills for students so they can grow to be empathetic and caring adults.

According to Thigpen, a teacher or school counselor at each school is trained in the certified National Association of Peer Program Professionals curriculum to be prepared to serve as a peer coordinator. The teacher or counselor in turn selects students, after they go through an application process, to serve as peer helpers and trains them on the peer helping system.

Brynlee Henderson, a Greenville Elementary peer helper, said she enjoys being of service to others. 

“I wanted to be a peer helper because I like to help others,” Henderson said. “If someone is struggling, I can help them.”

As part of the training, peer helpers agree to keep the issues other students share with them in strict confidence. However, if a student threatens to harm him or herself, exhibits psychotic behavior or reports abuse, the peer helper must involve their coordinator, a counselor or administrator immediately.

Peer helpers learn a set of skills – attending, empathizing, summarizing, questioning, genuineness, assertiveness, confrontation, problem-solving, conflict resolution and confidentiality – that assist them in meeting the needs of their fellow students by listening empathetically, providing options for making healthy choices, becoming advocates and helping them get involved in campus life. In the process of helping others improve their self-esteem, peer helpers can themselves become leaders and role models.