Peer advisers support in many areas

by Kathrin Weston | 5/8/98 5:00am

For students who have experienced sexual abuse, eating disorders or problems with drugs and alcohol, a fellow student may seem more approachable than an older administrator or a health care professional.

In such cases, peer advisers trained by health service professionals in each area can talk to students with these health problems, and direct them to further help resources at the College.

"Students respond better to other students," said Margaret Smith, who coordinates the drug and alcohol division of the health education programs.

Health Resources posts BlitzMail bulletins with the names, ages, majors and interests of the Eating Disorder Peer Advisers (EDPAs), Sexual Abuse Peer Advisers (SAPAs) and Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisers (DAPAs), as well as a personal message or quote. Students can then contact one of the peer advisors by BlitzMail to meet and discuss their concerns.

The advisers are trained to answer questions and serve as an information sources to other students. They are intended reach students in a non-threatening environment while providing information about health concerns.

Peer advisers complete a specific one-term training program consisting of six two-hour sessions, after which they receive a certification. The training includes workshops, lectures and sessions of role-playing.

Advisers are required to participate in continued education every term they are active after their basic training. Marcia Herrin, coordinator of the Nutrition Education Program, said the training is excellent preparation for medical school.

She said the peer adviser training program is very popular, and added that she was "pleasantly surprised about the numbers of students reaching out to people."

Sexual Assault Peer Advisers

Susan Marine, coordinator of the Sexual Abuse Program, said about 35 to 40 SAPAs, the vast majority of whom are females, are on-call to answer questions, provide support and offer information to survivors of sexual assault.

On average, she said, six SAPAs are contacted every term.

Marine said she thinks sexual abuse is an important problem at all colleges.

She said the comprehensive 20-hour SAPA training involves basic information about recovery from sexual assault, medical concerns, relationship violence, abuse issues and evidence collection. SAPAs are also informed about the Committee On Standards and the legal implications of sexual assault.

SAPAs are required to put signs on their doors, to wear pins and to announce at club meetings that they are peer advisers. Marine said the program is very popular, as more people sign up for the classes than can be admitted.

This summer, the program is offering training classes at night so that students on athletic teams can participate.

Jill Sorrentino '99 said she wanted to become a SAPA because some of her friends had experienced sexual abuse, and she wanted to help them and as many other people as she could.

The peer advisers' main function, Smith explained, is to give "advice, information and verification," without making any judgments. Peer advisers must keep the cases confidential. They report and discuss their conversations with students with the program coordinators without disclosing any information about the students' identity.

In the future, Smith said, these reports will become more formal and will require some form of documentation.

Starting in the fall with the Class of 2002, Smith and Marine explained, peer advisers will first go through a general Peer Education Action Corps designed to train students as health opinion leaders and provide a basic overview of health issues.

Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisers

Smith said the students who contact DAPAs are usually those concerned about friends who seem to have a drinking problem. DAPAs can offer information about what constitutes a real alcohol problem.

"It's not about drinking, it's about high-risk drinking," Smith said, explaining that DAPAs, who are mostly male, are not against drinking in general.

When drinking leads students to suffer sustained negative effects, such as missing classes or encountering academic trouble, DAPAs can direct them to counseling on campus, Alcoholics Anonymous or other treatment.

DAPAs relate more easily to students because of the students' fear of being reported to be an authority, Smith said, even though "deans and administrators really care that students have people to talk to."

Eating Disorder Peer Advisers

The role of the EDPA is not to approach a student with a possible eating disorder, but to discuss with any concerned friends how to talk to the student. EDPAs also tell the friends how to present information and help to overcome the fear of confrontation. In addition, the EDPA can direct the student to other resources.

"It's a huge need on this campus," said Scott Jacobs '99, founder and coordinator of the EDPA program, adding that the program, while it does not eliminate eating disorders, "takes a step toward addressing the problem."

While most EDPAs are female and advisers are almost always contacted by women, he said, eating disorders are just as much of a problem for men, only one that is not often acknowledged.

Kelly Miller '00 said she became an EDPA because she has friends with eating disorders, and she wanted to learn more about the problem to help them and others.

"The recovery process is sometimes frustrating," she said, as students can be unwilling to admit they have eating disorders. She called the experience when students do go to counseling very rewarding.