Peer Support Skills Training (PSST), a program formerly known as Student Support Network (SSN), was implemented in its new iteration this academic year. The program, created by Associate Director of Health Education/Mental Health Promotion Jessica Gifford, was offered in the fall 2017 term as an extracurricular course and an interterm course the week of Jan. 15.
PSST is an interactive training that uses role-playing and hands-on practice to teach students skills such as empathy and active listening in order to support peers in difficult situations. This past fall, it was co-facilitated by Gifford and staff counselor Alex Kim in 90-minute blocks over six weeks.
Gifford said the college has provided SSN as a program since 2012. It was adopted from Worcester Polytechnic Institute but tailored over the years to “fit the needs of this campus,” Gifford said.
At the beginning of this school year, she said she felt it was time to change the name because the training no longer reflected the original curriculum.
“The major change this year that has been happening gradually but even more so this year is really to focus on the skills piece — active listening and support skills and communication skills — and be able to incorporate more practice time into sessions,” Gifford said. “It’s a little bit less presentation of information and more skill development.”
After hearing about the training from her friends, Theresa Tian ’20 reached out to Gifford about implementing a version of the course over interterm. Tian felt that the program is of interest to many students but often conflicts with academic schedules during the regular term. Though SSN has been previously offered over interterm, Gifford said Tian was the impetus for PSST happening definitively this year.
Tian publicized the program through posts on Facebook class pages, word of mouth and an email list. She also worked out a schedule with Gifford, Kim and case manager Andy Tew that made the class available to as many interested students as possible.
Because Gifford was unable to facilitate the course for interterm, Kim and Tew co-facilitated for a group of eight students. The program took place in three-hour blocks over three days on the week of Jan. 15.
During each class meeting, the group would start off by introducing topics of the day. After some discussion, students would break into small groups to role play situations in which support skills can be practiced.
“I really loved it,” said Irene Cho ’21, who participated in the training. “It was very interesting because it taught these skills on how to communicate with people and how to support people in times of need … I think it’s especially important because it’s really hard to reach out and think of ways to help your friends when they come to you with their struggles. Everyone could benefit from taking [the class].”
Tian said Tew and Kim created a space that fostered trust and encouraged students to talk about “things people don’t normally feel comfortable talking about even if they want to or feel like they should talk about.”
“It proved that even in this artificially created space, people felt comfortable enough to share personal experiences,” Tian said. “It was a very real conversation that we were having. We would try to use the things we were taught. I feel like that’s really useful … Sometimes you have to say things for things to become habits.”
According to Tian, many of the skills discussed in the course are “somewhat intuitive,” but because they are not always explicitly at the forefront of people’s minds, people are not aware of when they are implementing them.
“Putting a name to some of these skills, getting in small groups and talking about real situations we’ve been in, trying to put those skills to use, validating people with words that are encouraging, and — it sounds cheesy, but naming emotions — it’s a really good way of showing people that you’re hearing them and not just the details but hearing how they feel and making sure they understand that.”
One particular concept discussed in the course is a universal tendency to “jump to a fix” when hearing peers talk about a problem, said Tian.
“We tend to give advice immediately, whether [because] we think they need it or we just want to help the other person,” she said. “We need to acknowledge the fact that sometimes someone just needs to be heard and understand that someone is there for them rather than jump to a solution.”
“I found myself during paired activities catching myself, like ‘Oh, I was about to say something that might’ve been intrusive,’” Tian added. “We’re well-meaning and we try to help but it’s not helpful sometimes.”
Kim said he hopes students in the course are able to look back on previous instances in which they felt either supported or unsupported and reflect on their values as well as how they come across when listening to friends.
“I kind of hope that that radiates out into the community, to create community where folks who are thinking about this stuff actively can talk to their friends about it … and folks will be a little more mindful about how they listen and about reaching out to folks for support,” he added.
Though she has not yet made concrete plans, Tian hopes to hold future meetings with the various students who have previously participated in PSST or SSN.
“I’m happy that people signed up for it,” Tian added. “It doesn’t sound like a super fun or glamorous interterm course or anything … I’m really glad people were interested enough to sign up and come to all the trainings in the snow — I’m glad that people got something out of it.”
The transition from conceptual information to skills practice has benefited the program, Gifford said. “It has made it stronger because the feedback even from SSN is that that piece — the skills piece — is what students value the most,” she said. “They see how it changes their relationships with friends, partners, how it changes their communication style. That is the piece that has had the most impact.”
PSST will be offered again this spring semester though dates have not yet been finalized.