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Survey of College Students Shows High Interest in Peer Mental Health Counseling Services, Especially in Marginalized Groups

A recent survey of more than 2,000 U.S. college students reveals widespread interest in peer mental health counseling services, with one in five respondents having already used such programs, and more than 60% of those who haven't saying they are interested in using them. 

The survey, funded by Born This Way Foundation and the Mary Christie Institute, is the first to focus on students' attitudes toward mental health peer counseling, defined as "receiving support for your mental health from a trained peer, not a friend."

The results showed that usage of peer counseling programs is higher among Black, transgender and first-generation college students, and respondents reported greater interest in peer support programs since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Other key findings of the survey include:

  • Two-thirds of students surveyed say they have faced a mental health challenge in the past year.
  • Usage of peer counseling programs is higher among Black students (39%), transgender students (39%) and first-generation students (29%), who are particularly likely to say it is "very important" to find a peer counselor with similar identities.
  • Nearly half (45%) of students who provide peer counseling report "helping others" as their main motivation. 
  • Those who provide peer counseling are more likely to score higher on a well-being scale than those who do not provide peer counseling.
  • 36% reported that if faced with a serious mental health issue, they would turn to a friend or romantic partner first.
  • Interest in peer counseling has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic, with nearly half (48%) of respondents saying the disruption caused by the pandemic made them more likely to seek out peer counseling, including 20% who say it has made them "much more likely." 
  • The most commonly reported reasons for seeking peer counseling were stress, anxiety, depression, social life issues and loneliness.

Survey respondents who said they have used peer counseling reported high satisfaction, with nearly 80% calling it "easily available," "confidential" and "free," and 82% of respondents saying it is "able to serve students of various backgrounds and identities."

But while the findings reveal promising possibilities of peer counseling programs, they also identified potential shortfalls within the training practices for peer counselors, the survey report said. Peer counseling training is common for such programs, but it is not universal, and the survey results showed that 16% of peer counselors are "unaware of an emergency protocol if they become worried for a student's safety." 

The survey was conducted in partnership between Born This Way Foundation, founded by Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta to "support youth mental health and work with young people to build a kinder and braver world," and the Mary Christie Institute, a research and education organization dedicated to teen and young adult mental wellness.

"We know this generation of students prioritizes their mental health and wants to help create solutions for themselves and their peers," said Maya Smith, executive director of Born This Way Foundation. "It's imperative — as nonprofits, academic institutions and youth advocates — that we offer actionable resources to further support students and their mental wellness."

"Counseling center directors have long recognized how vital peer to peer support is, and that peer counseling could be part of our treatment options if offered safely," said Dr. Zoe Ragouzeos, executive director of Counseling and Wellness Services at New York University and the president of the Mary Christie Institute. "These findings tell us that students are engaged in and interested in these programs, which encourages us to work together to create and support this work."

Find more information and view the full survey results on the Born This Way Foundation website.

About the Author

Kristal Kuykendall is editor, 1105 Media Education Group. She can be reached at [email protected].

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