California State University, Long Beach
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Promoting Mental Health Through Peer Education

Published: May 16, 2016

There’s something about getting advice from one of your peers that probably carries a little more weight than, let’s say, getting it from your parents. For that reason, a majority of students are more likely to turn to friends to discuss problems, figuring peers are more like them and able to understand their problems and points of view.

In general, that’s the aim for Project OCEAN (On-Campus Emergency Assistance Network), to use creative ways in promoting mental health for all students through peer education. Project OCEAN is housed under Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), a department within the Division of Student Affairs.

Its mission is to educate the campus on suicide prevention and promote a climate that reduces the stigma associated with mental illness while encouraging students to seek help when needed. The program provides resources and additional information on issues related to mental health through trainings, workshops, campus events and peer-to-peer programs.

“Mental health is about having a healthy state of mind,” said Project OCEAN coordinator Jane Killer. “We all have mental health. It really comes down to the question of, ‘What are you doing to maintain your mental well-being as you go through the normal stresses of life?’”

The main focus of Killer and her team is to teach students how to take care of their mental well-being through the peer-to-peer model.

“Because students interact with our peer educators daily, even when the peer educators are off the clock, we invest a lot of time and effort in training the peers to be prepared for all situations,” said Killer, who leads the training team which includes CAPS psychologist Michael Johnston and Project OCEAN administrative assistant Alexandria Pan.

The team of peer educators is hired each summer and receives suicide prevention training in the beginning of the fall. They also take part in mandatory weekly staff meetings where CAPS’ psychologists provide the peers with additional training and lead discussions on various topics such as exploring strengths as an individual and as part of a team; how to create a helping relationship with students; communication styles; cultural diversity; working with students who identify as LGBT; and sexual identity.

“The students on campus recognize our peer educators when they see them walking around,” said Killer, who noted that students usually sign up for OCEAN trainings because they are going through some difficult things or are concerned about someone they care about and are not sure of what to do. “Since students see our peer educators as easily relatable and non-judgmental, there’s an instant connection with our peers, where they are invited by students to come into their student clubs or organizations and do workshops on stress management, healthy relationships or effective communication. It’s incredible to see how well-received our peer educators are in student spaces. The genuine interactions that our peers share with students are what makes our program so successful.”

Killer has also seen an increase in professors requesting Project OCEAN staff to come in and teach their students more about mental health and provide information on the services that CAPS and her program offers.

“Going into the classrooms and sharing our services is a very effective way of reaching our commuter students, who make up over 60 percent of our student population. Generally, commuter students are only on campus when they need to go to class,” said Killer, “so oftentimes they may not be aware of the services and help that’s available to them right on campus.”

Project OCEAN’s team of peer educators consists of two graduate students—Noemi Fernandez and Tiffany Rivera; and four undergraduates—Alex Marquez, Nicole Morales, Matt Argame and Alejandra Araiza.

After receiving their heavy training during the fall semester, student peers go full speed into the spring putting on events, providing trainings and workshops multiple times a week. Though they come from a wide variety of academic disciplines such as social work, student development in higher education, journalism, Middle Eastern studies, creative writing, pre-med, women’s and gender studies, they all share serveral things in common.

“All of our peer educators have a special interest in mental health,” said Killer, “and have a strong desire to help students through meaningful and genuine interactions.”

This spring, part of that work included three of what Killer refers to as “OCEANified” workshops, which were fully developed and organized by the program’s six student peers. They included:

Body Positivity: A Pop-Up Café, where students came and enjoyed a free cup of coffee or tea and pastries while doing arts and crafts and engaging in conversation that promoted positive body image.

Writing for Self-Discovery, a workshop designed to teach students different skills to express themselves through writing in a way that allows them to find their own voice.

No Filter, a workshop where participants are provided with a free disposable camera during spring break to document people, events or things that are meaningful in their lives as a form of self-care and de-stressing through photography.

These workshops, along with others augment Project OCEAN’s two main awareness-raising events during the year, one each semester.

In the fall, Candlelight of Hope raises awareness and provides support to those who have been effected by a heavily stigmatized topic—college student suicide. In the spring, Live Your Life Day is presented, which is a resource fair focusing on mental and physical wellness, de-stigmatizing mental illness and encouraging overall wellness for our students.

“Project OCEAN brings to the campus community not only a greater understanding of suicide awareness and mental health issues affecting our students,” said CAPS director Brad Compliment, “but also brings to our campus a greater willingness to recognize, talk about and celebrate how each one of us can embrace our own mental health as part of our humanness.”

Created in 2008, Project OCEAN was supported by the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for three years and then funded by the state California Mental Health Services Act (CalMHSA) for two years. Project OCEAN became institutionalized within CSULB in 2014 as a permanent program under the Division of Student Affairs.

“It has been wonderful to see Project OCEAN, which began in 2008, now become a permanent program of the university. Administrators now understand the importance of our program and recognize that the work we do on campus makes a difference in the lives of our students,” said Killer. “Getting this commitment by the university in support of our program is a huge validation for us to continue the good things we are doing with Project OCEAN to support the well-being of our students.”

On April 25, Project OCEAN was selected as one of the nine recipients of the annual Alumni Association Grant, which will be used to fund the materials for suicide prevention and mental health trainings. In 2015, Project OCEAN provided 45 mental health trainings and workshops to 982 students, staff, faculty and administrators. In addition to those trainings, it hosted 21 OCEAN events and tabling outreach events interacting with over 2,300 students.

–Shayne Schroeder