ORONO, Maine — A group of University of Maine professors and graduate students plan to train high schoolers to battle depression, bullying and drug use in their schools.
On Dec. 5, nine Piscataquis Community Secondary School students and four from Blue Hill Harbor School will learn how to serve as peer counselors for their schools.
The training will teach the students how to handle “the growing issues of bullying, depression and drug use in our state’s schools,” Benjamin Thelwell, a UMaine graduate assistant working on the study, said Wednesday.
Thelwell said studies of peer counseling programs at individual schools across the country have shown strong results and are among the most effective means of reducing and preventing these problems.
After the training session, students will return to school to practice what they’ve learned. The project leaders will follow up to assess the program’s effectiveness, make changes, and eventually expand the peer counselor training to other schools in the state, according to Thelwell.
Annette Nelligan, a lecturer in UMaine’s College of Education and Human Development, and Yung-wei Lin, an assistant professor in the same college, are developing the program with assistance from Eric Steeves, guidance director for Piscataquis Community Secondary School; Thelwell; and Joshua Jones, a doctoral candidate in counseling education at UMaine.
Eventually, the group hopes to turn the project into a research study, but will need to receive feedback from the pilot schools first and also receive Institutional Review Board approval, according to Lin.
Jones said he participated in a peer counselor program when he was in high school. He called it a “transformative and extraordinarily powerful” experience.
“There were kids that were real loners that I got a chance to make a connection with,” Jones said, adding that his school’s program made it a better place and strengthened students’ pride in their school. He said he hopes the UMaine program eventually will help spread peer counseling to high schools across the state.
Peer counselors will learn when a problem facing one of their fellow students is too big for them to handle without help from the administration.
“A large part of this training is going to be for kids to know what their boundaries are, when issues are beyond their ability to deal with and to turn those onto school counselors,” Thelwell said. For example, if a student comes across a peer who is contemplating suicide, that’s an issue that should be brought to the attention of a guidance counselor, Thelwell said.
They will learn the basics of counseling, ranging from keeping good posture and eye contact to how to ask open-ended questions. The peer counselors will be sent back to school at the end of the Dec. 5 workshop with a certificate showing they completed the program.
“The kids feel comfortable with their peers, They’re used to being around them,” Thelwell said. “They find that there’s a level of trust that’s therapeutic.”
Students who will be trained as peer counselors were selected by faculty and guidance counselors at their schools and interviewed before being asked to participate in the program.
Thelwell said no other university in the country has offered this sort of training program to high schools on a statewide scale.
The pilot project could be the first step toward “building a coalition and building a stronger school climate,” Thelwell said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story requires clarification. The University of Maine group starting a peer counseling program for high schoolers at two schools plans to expand the program in the future if it succeeds. The group has not yet characterized it as a research project, but rather as a service to the schools involved. It would consider launching a research initiative in the future, according to Yung-wei Lin, one of the UMaine assistant professors behind the project.