Should we have teens counselling teens at high schools?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

Being a teenager is a tough gig, to say the least. Anxiety and depression are rife, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens. But when teenagers are going through a tough time, it's often not the adults in their lives they turn to, it's each other.

A new US study has found three quarters of parents think teens better understand the challenges their peers are going through, compared with teachers and school counsellors. Most also think that teenagers would be more likely to talk about their mental health problems with peer support leaders.

"Peers may provide valuable support for fellow teens struggling with emotional issues because they can relate to each other," said the co-director of the CS Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health, Sarah Clark.

"Some teens may worry that their parents will overreact or not understand what they're going through. Teachers and school counsellors may also have limited time to talk with students in the middle of other responsibilities."

Julie Sweet, clinical psychotherapist at Seaway Counselling and Psychotherapy, says peer counselling in high schools can be hugely beneficial because students are known to respond positively to their peers.  

"Teens often feel validated and understood by other likeminded and similarly aged individuals within the same cohort," she says. 

"Peer counselling systems have been proven to have the capacity to identify the needs of students in high school."

Sweet says that teens generally take feedback well from their peers, and that they're more likely to show initiative in approaching them, as well as accepting their influence.

"Another value-add is the holistic care outcome they can provide," Sweet adds. "Teens being able to disclose psychosocial concerns, school grievances and family of origin issues, without judgement, can feel safe in a collaborative environment. That is enriching for students."

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The major drawback, as far as Sweet is concerned, is the level of time, education and support required. 

"As there are different types of peer counselling support, there will be different skill sets needed," she says. "Whether its peer listening, peer mentoring, peer education, or peer tutoring, it's an approach that needs advocacy, monitoring, training and governance."

It's an expensive exercise, and the seriousness of some of the issues that peers would be dealing with means frameworks and oversight would be essential. 

"Programs that provide orientation, training and support in alignment with curriculums and Government bodies [would be required]," she says. 

"Extensive training and programs that provide students with leadership skills, help develop empathy and promote personal growth, increase resilience and enhance psychosocial and educational skills are essential.

"Supervision, reflective practice and debriefing are vital additions also."

So peer to peer counselling programs, if they are coming, are still a long way off. But for parents trying to help their teens through tricky times right now, Sweet says it's important to be present. 

"Teens want to heard, want to be listened to, want to have their lived experiences normalised and accepted," she says. 

"Self-worth is critical to nourishing a teen's esteem and establishing the lens they view themselves through.

"Encouraging teens to externalise their internal world whilst challenges at times can be life changing for them as well as their peers, teachers, parents and extended families."

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