Updated at 12:30 p.m. on Feb. 11
As a first-year student at Boston College in 2020, Ella Snyder recalls feeling isolated and being anxious about the university’s restrictions to decrease spread of the coronavirus.
“I was very worried about how I would make friends while also having to social distance,” she said. “It was kind of like I was trying to figure out this impossible balance.”
Walking across the Chestnut Hill campus, Snyder spotted a flyer advertising Lean On Me BC, a peer support network that hosts online, confidential conversations. She signed up, sent a text and started to chat with a peer.
During the pandemic, the crises of isolation and anxiety have fallen particularly hard on young people, driving demand for peer counseling at Boston College and other campuses. A recent national survey found most students say they have either sought this kind of help, as Snyder did, or are interested in doing so.
Last fall, researchers with the Mary Christie Institute and Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation surveyed more than 2,000 college students and found that two-thirds of those surveyed said they’ve faced a mental health challenge in the past year. Nearly half said the disruption caused by the pandemic made them more likely to seek out peer counseling, including 20% who said it has made them “much more likely.” One in five of those survey respondents said they had received peer counseling, and most of the rest are interested in such help with their mental health from “a trained peer, not a friend.”
The survey also found that Black, transgender and first-generation college students were more likely to say it’s very important to find a peer counselor with similar identities. Zoe Ragouzeos, president of the Mary Christie Institute, based in Lexington, said recognizing that need might help reduce wait times on campus.
“While we can’t hire out of this problem, incorporating a set of people who might represent more identities is part of the solution,” she said.
Still, Ragouzeos acknowledges that some students are more inclined to seek support from other students, not staff.
"Students want support from their peers," she said. "This is not a generation that will wait for us to come up with solutions. They want to be part of the solutions."
That appears to have been borne out in Synder's experience with peer counseling. She said the fear of judgment by adults can be a barrier to seeking support.
“It was just really nice to have my opinion validated,” she explained. “I felt like a bad person for having questions about the COVID concerns, because obviously you want to respect the pandemic and not spread the virus, but also it takes a toll on your own mental health, too.”
The number of students seeking peer support at Boston College has spiked during the pandemic. According to student leaders, last fall also brought an increase in the number of confidential text messages that express suicidal thoughts or self-harm. The network, which is not designed to handle crisis situations, connected those students to the college's professional resources or Samaritan hotlines off campus.
Not all student counselors are trained how to handle these messages. The nationwide survey found 16% of student counselors said they were unaware of emergency protocols if they become worried for another student’s safety.
Ragouzeos said that finding is most troubling.
“It's imperative the students be uniformly trained,” she said. “We want them to know what to do when they are encountering a higher-risk situation. The counseling centers need to be front and center in terms of managing these kinds of programs on their campuses. They know what to do if they are involved with a student who seems to need emergency support in that moment.”
Mental health counselors on campus agree.
“We can’t outsource this work to students who aren’t trained in it,” said Matthew Barry, an assistant director for community development with the counseling center at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
The school with more than 7,000 students in central Massachusetts is facing what Barry calls a mental health crisis after seven student deaths in the past six months.
"It's been a very difficult year for us,” Barry said. “There's a lot of pain. A lot of people are hurting, and we're doing our best to try to help."
Looking forward, WPI administrators are pledging to provide more mental health resources, including additional peer support. In his role at WPI's counseling center, Barry recruits and trains about a hundred students each year for a support network, but he thinks WPI can do more.
"I would love if there was greater overall awareness of, 'What to do when X? What to do when Y? Who can help you?'” he said. “We try to equip the students that we're supporting with that, but can we do a better job of putting it out there in a way that people will see it and digest it and hear it and take it to heart?"
At Boston College this semester, Snyder, 19, has moved from receiving peer counseling to providing it. She said her volunteer work has taken on new meaning since one of her friends, who attended another college, killed himself over the summer.
“Every time I'm taking a conversation now, I try and keep in mind that maybe if something like that existed at his school, he wouldn't have been afraid to reach out for help, just because it's so easy and so confidential,” she said.
Snyder and other peer counselors want Boston College administrators to put information about peer resources on the back of all students' ID cards to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or use the Crisis Text Line by texting “Home” to 741741. More resources are available at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated where Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation is based. It is headquartered in New York.