Introducing: Ears, Hands, Hearts – Peer Helpers Programme Monday Elective

By Jeanne Tan (17A01B)

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A Y5 student walks into a classroom on a Monday morning. He sits in a circle with four other students at the back of the classroom. He reads off the instructions on the board and turns to look at the student sitting opposite him. He gulps. “I-I think I have a crush on you,” he mutters. The student on the receiving end panics momentarily, but quickly recovers.

“It seems like you think you have feelings towards me. Do you know what prompted these feelings?” The student nods encouragingly. The observers giggle as they scribble notes and place a tick next to the column labelled ‘reflected statement’ and ‘open-ended question’.

Peer Helpers Programme, a new Monday morning enrichment course run by Raffles Guidance Centre, brings together students interested in learning to counsel and supporting their peers to learn how to listen, encourage, and respond. Hilarious as some scenarios may seem, the simulations that the helpers conduct during sessions prepares them for real life encounters that they could face should they present themselves as peer helpers.

The word “counsellor” is pointedly avoided during sessions, reminding us that these peer helpers are merely peers, and are not qualified to do much more than listen and provide support. But the skills of active listening, paraphrasing, and summarising that are taught do help to create a better listening ear in students, and ultimately works towards RGC’s goal of encourage the RI community to become more empathetic to the problems of others. Peer helpers simulate scenarios where they share a problem and another student posed as the ‘helper’ tries to lead the conversation towards self reflection and ultimately, emotional release.

The programme includes upcoming trips to SMU and guest speakers on mental illness, to create a group of better informed individuals on mental health and its impact on students, and sow the seeds for a more accepting community in RI.

The idea for this programme was born from a group of students last year, who wished to establish a base for awareness on mental illness and mental health in RI. The plan didn’t succeed back then, but it led the counsellors at RGC to start this programme.

In a survey done on RI students, the students found that very few of their peers would seek a counsellor, preferring to reach out to friends instead. While this may sound alright  to most, this sort of mentality can be dangerous for those suffering from severe mental illness. So, expanding on the civics elective programme for counselling skills, the Peer Helper’s Programme was conceived of, to teach a group of students the basic skills in counselling, and to serve as a sort of “first aid” for mental health amongst their peers. The basic structure was modelled on other Peer Helpers groups, including the one in Singapore Management University.

On the question of being a Peer Helper, one may naturally assume a tone of outrage. What constitutes being a ‘helper’? There are many things that one does as a friend that is in opposition to the role of a counsellor, so where does one draw the line? Does equipping these students with counselling skills then give them the right to exercise them on peers?

Recognising the dangers of such an impression, especially in the helpers themselves is of utmost importance. During sessions, the RGC counsellors make an effort to make a distinction, posing a variety of scenarios for the peer helpers that only a peer would encounter: from having a helpee confess their feelings, to handling a confession about self harm.

The idea that peer helpers are not counsellors is impressed strongly through walkthroughs of scenarios out of their hands – the Peer Helper’s Programme merely trains for peer helpers to serve as a go-between for their friends and the counsellor. Having a listening ear among students can be a crucial factor in spreading awareness about seeking professional help, and hopefully be a stepping stone to a more accepting culture towards RGC.

Personally, this reporter finds this programme a potentially very powerful method to dispel myths and fears about going to the counsellor. Besides the gains on the part of the participants, the wider community is also addressed: a critical achievement for a programme directed towards helping.

Perhaps the effects may not be immediately obvious, but this programme can go a long way in terms of dispelling myths and fears among students about going to the counsellor, and encourage more students to seek help when needed.

The product of these sessions is in the form of Mental Health Awareness Week, which will be held in August. Through a variety of self-designed exhibitions, the peer helpers aim to showcase all that they have learned through the programme, as well as spread awareness on mental health issues and illnesses to the RI community, especially during the critical CT period.

This year, the Peer Helpers Programme aims to tackle more serious issues such as destigmatising mental illness, in line with their purpose as Peer Helpers. With a bigger team and more structured guidance this project may lead to a bigger impact on the school community at large.

This is yet another way that this programme serves the community, far more than it does the participants – the knowledge gained by the peer helpers can help to communicate acceptance and understanding towards mental illnesses, and help to bridge the gap between the counsellors’ messages and the student population.

Mental Health Awareness Week will take place from 22nd to 28th of August.

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