It's 2 a.m. when an emotional crisis strikes for one Bryant undergraduate student. It's outside business hours for the Office of Counseling Services (OSC) — which supports students' health and well-being by providing confidential counseling services, programming, and outreach on campus — and the student doesn't want to worry their parents with a late-night call. That's where Katryn Maley '26, a peer counselor in Bryant's Student Support Network (SSN), steps in.
More often than not, Maley says, students just need to be heard by a sympathetic peer. “Sometimes, people won't even remember what you say, but they'll remember how you made them feel,” she says.
Through the SSN — a program developed by WPI and implemented by the counseling office — Bryant's fleet of peer counselors are trained to recognize potential mental health concerns, offer support, provide guidance, and help their peers find the assistance they need — extending a web of support into the campus’s dorms, locker rooms, athletics fields, and classrooms.
“I often tell the students, ‘You guys are our first responders,’” notes Courtney McCarthy, Assistant Director of Counseling Services at Bryant University, who leads the SSN training program. “We know college in general can be a very difficult, stressful time and can exacerbate a lot of mental health issues.
Those stressful times were further amplified by the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a Healthy Minds Study, which collects data from 373 campuses nationwide more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem during the 2020-2021 school year. In another national survey, almost three quarters of students reported moderate or severe psychological distress.
Yet, despite the prevalence of these issues, not everyone is comfortable seeking help. “What we were finding is that a lot of students who were struggling often had a hard time reaching out to the counseling office or faculty or university staff,” McCarthy says. "They might see it as a sign of weakness or believe that it might reflect negatively on them. Other times they might simply not know where to go.”
How then, can college campus counseling centers reach students who aren’t likely to seek help on their own? By bringing counseling services to them — and training the people they typically lean on for support. “We found that students were going to their friends first, and talking to them about what was going on,” Maley says. “Oftentimes, it's a lot easier to talk to a peer than what we might perceive as an authority figure.
“I think that’s true for all of us,” she notes.
Some students who participate in SSN training are nominated by faculty and staff. Others come to the program on their own, just looking to help out. “What I’ve found from the last couple of years of leading the training is that the students have a genuine interest in, and a passion for, helping others and learning about mental health to better support themselves and their friends and peers,” McCarthy states.
Maley signed up for the training as a first-year student in part because she wanted to get involved on campus, but it was also important for her to find ways to support others. “We all go through tough times, and everyone needs some help along the way,” she states. “We have to be here to support each other, so if someone came to me needing help, I wanted to be prepared.”
In the training sessions, she found a group of like-minded individuals. “I came out energized,” Maley says. “We all have the same goal; we all have the same motivation.”
During the six session SSN training, peer counselors learn how to recognize issues like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse; they also hone communication, mediation, and empathy techniques. They also often serve as an intermediary, gently guiding students to find help from the Office of Counseling Services counselors when necessary and keeping in contact with the office when any mental health or safety issues arise.
“It’s about knowing how to communicate effectively, how to listen effectively, and how to support each other in a difficult time,” says McCarthy. “The issues the students learn about and explore are issues that they’ll see throughout their lives, both here at Bryant or beyond, whether it's in their personal life with their family and friends or in their professional life.”
Being ready to help means examining some heavy topics. “When we talk about things such as suicidality or self-harm, it can be a real eye-opening conversation for students because, A: They're learning how unfortunately common that these thoughts and behaviors are, and B: They’re also able to share with each other whether they've struggled with them themselves or have had experiences with peers who have,” says McCarthy.
That sharing of experiences is a key element of the SSN preparation, McCarthy says. “Those discussions, and opportunities to connect with one another, are some of the more most powerful and moving parts of the training.”
A word of encouragement, a world of difference
As important as it is to be ready to handle a crisis, much of the training is also about catching issues before they reach a crescendo.
Sometimes that involves an active, prevention-based approach. “It’s not always about someone coming up to you and asking, ‘Can we talk?’” says Maley. “More often it’s about reaching out, about noting that they’re not talking as much or are a little more withdrawn and asking if there’s anything wrong.
“And then it just kind of spills out,” she says.
She cites her own experience as an example. A sophomore, Maley notes that many of her fellow students are in the process of choosing majors and making plans for their futures, which can lead to doubts and feelings of imposter syndrome.
In that moment, a word of encouragement can make a world of difference. “They'll know you’re there for them and they won’t feel alone,” she reflects. “This is about letting them know: There are other people around you, and you have a community.”
For many of the SSN training graduates, the experience is a formative part of their college experience. Some even formed their own student organization, SPEAK (Stigma Prevention, Education, Awareness, Knowledge), to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around mental health challenges.
“Through supporting others, they come to realize the value their efforts have,” says McCarthy. “Even if they don't realize it at the time, they can really help make a difference in other people's lives.”
It can help make a difference in their own lives as well. “When I see my friends and fellow students struggling, I almost feel like I'm struggling with them,” says Maley. “So, when I can help them with their problems, big or small, I feel better too. It makes you feel empowered. If they can work through their challenges, I know I can too.”