Peer counselors support fellow students with education, empathy

High school students are taking ownership of the mental health of the teenagers in their building.  

About 2,000 ninth grade students hear presentations each year on positive mental health and suicide prevention, thanks to the efforts of dozens of upperclassmen peer counselors.  

On Monday morning at Fossil Ridge, two senior girls, Brynn Peters and Abby Burns, explained the difference between eustress and distress, sadness and depression, and worry and anxiety to a ninth-grade advisory class. They taught the class the signs of suicidal ideation and how to get help for themselves or a friend.  

"I’m really passionate about this because I’ve struggled with depression myself,” Burns said. “It’s just really powerful to talk about it, so it’s not so hush-hush.”  

The power of students talking to students

The suicide prevention trainings began among the peer counselors at Fort Collins High School a few years ago, after a student died by suicide, then spread to the other high schools as the students trained each other on what to say.

And they had a similar reaction this year, after hearing about two middle schoolers who took their own lives in the fall. The group started developing a training for middle school students around self-confidence that they'll pilot for the first time at eighth grade transition night on April 18.  

"We really want that kind of student-on-student education and interaction because it seems to stick a little bit better than hearing from an administrator," Rebecca Hamner, a FCHS peer counselor explained.  

The model has been in place in Fort Collins high schools for about 30 years, when the first peer counseling programs were established at the comprehensive high schools.

“We already know that teens are talking to each other and getting advice from each other. It’s where they are developmentally — they turn to each other more than adults. So it just makes sense that we would train them to do a better job at that,” Pam Kilness, school counselor at Rocky Mountain said.

Having students available as a point of access makes it easier for the teenagers to connect with mental health professionals, she said. Not only are the peer counselors more connected with what’s going on around the school and in various social group, but they can multiply the effect of the school mental health support staff.

“It takes a lot of time and effort to train and enable these kids, but we see it’s so worthwhile, because then it’s not just me, we have kids helping kids too,” Kilness said.

Results from friendly familiarity

Over the years, each high school has seen clear success from their peer counseling programs. Along with giving regular presentations on everything from teen dating violence to eating disorders, Rocky Mountain and Fort Collins also offer an office for students to come for confidential peer counseling.

"We listen and help people through things. We’re there to be a resource to students who need to come in but might not want to talk to counselors or teachers about their problem,” Hamner said.

The students complete extensive training on when to call in a professional school counselor or mental health specialist, and all have received suicide prevention training. Often, they’ll accompany a student who’s nervous about seeking help.

"Having people you see every day in the halls telling you about this stuff makes more of an impact," Brynn Peters said. As the leader of the Peer Support and Mental Health Committee at Fossil Ridge, she's seen results firsthand of their work.

At each school, the students actively reach out and form relationships to help break down barriers to support. The Fort Collins peer counselors make overhead announcements about their services, check-in with people eating lunch in the hallways and touch base when they hear about a tragedy in a family.  

"That familiarity has had a direct result on who comes into the office," Hamner explained.  

The partnership the peer counselors have created with district staff has allowed for a much greater level of student support than would be possible without them, and impacted thousands of lives.