Dedicated to Listening At W&L, student volunteers in the peer counseling program, Washingtonian Society and Active Minds supplement University Counseling Center services by offering a caring ear to fellow students.
“It’s important for students to know there’s someone in their corner who will not judge them and will still be their friend no matter what happens in their life.”
~ Dolph Maxwell ’22, head peer counselor
Not all students who feel overwhelmed are ready to reach out to the University Counseling Center, which is why student volunteers who are willing to lend a caring ear to their peers are such an important part of the university’s mental health toolkit.
At Washington and Lee University, student resources include a team of trained peer counselors dedicated to listening, a student-run organization called Active Minds that promotes mental health awareness on campus, and the Washingtonian Society, a group for students struggling with alcohol or substance abuse issues.
“It’s important for students to know there’s someone in their corner who will not judge them and will still be their friend no matter what happens in their life,” said Dolph Maxwell ’22. “I think it’s important for everyone, including first-years and upperclassmen, to know those people are out there.”
Maxwell is the head peer counselor in W&L’s peer counseling (PC) program, which trains a team of students to provide emotional support to their fellow students. Like resident advisers (RAs), PCs are assigned to first-year residence halls to guide those in need through a variety of issues that are common among college students. Upperclassmen are welcome to reach out to PCs, as well.
“An RA is like your acting parent; we are much like the acting aunt or uncle – we don’t like to tell you no, we are just here to give advice and listen to you,” Maxwell said.
Peer counselors go through a week of training at the beginning of each school year, then take part in ongoing monthly training sessions throughout the academic year. They are not taught to treat mental health issues; only to listen in a nonjudgmental fashion and to keep all conversations strictly confidential. If a student poses a risk of harm to themselves or others, or if it seems the student would benefit from professional counseling, PCs refer students to the University Counseling Center. Peer counselors are closely advised by Kirk Luder, a psychiatrist on staff in the counseling center.
“Dr. Luder is a dynamo,” Maxwell says. “He is always available after hours, which is a big commitment, but that’s the kind of guy he is.”
Maxwell decided to be a PC because he often found himself listening to friends and advising them during difficult times. Over the last three years, he has helped to shepherd students through a variety of concerns, including homesickness, academic struggles, relationship problems, depression and anxiety, substance abuse and disciplinary challenges.
“In a perfect world, I think everyone would be a peer counselor,” he said. “But in the meantime, it helps me and a lot of other peer counselors to be a better friend to my peers. I think it’s important to have people who just know how to love well, and that’s our goal in the end.”
Active Minds is another resource for students who need to talk – and another stepping stone to the University Counseling Center. Hal Fant ’22, president of W&L’s chapter of Active Minds, said the group’s goal is to “end the stigma surrounding mental health one conversation at a time, and really to educate young adults about mental health.”
Active Minds has biweekly meetings, and all students are invited to come and talk about whatever is on their mind. Average attendance at the meetings is about 20 people, but the group has about 150 members. The group also hosts an annual mental health panel featuring speakers with expertise in issues surrounding mental health. Enrichment programs and training resources are available through the national Active Minds organization.
Fant says he got involved in Active Minds because he is interested in mental health issues and likes the opportunity to connect with people from all corners of campus.
“I was really drawn to the fact that it was a place where everyone on campus would be able to connect in some way, with no barriers,” he said. “A lot of times, people associate with whoever is in their fraternity or sorority or who they see often, but this is a great way to break down barriers and connect with people on a deeper level.”
For students with concerns that are specific to alcohol consumption and substance use, the Washingtonian Society is an excellent resource. Katana Evans ’22 has come full circle with her involvement in the group, going from a struggling first-year student reaching out for help to a senior and president of the society.
“During my first semester at W&L, I felt isolated,” she said. “In the Washingtonian Society was the first time I felt like people were not wearing a figurative mask … It is easier to form deeper connections because you actually spend time getting to know each other and how to support each other. You leave your judgment at the door.”
The Washingtonian Society was founded at W&L in 2015, after Luder obtained a grant from the Transforming Youth Recovery Foundation. Involvement in the group was initially kept confidential, but over the years, it became more about outreach. In 2017, the university gave the society its own theme house on North Main Street in Lexington, where it hosts a weekly support group on Fridays, a day that was chosen because it is typically a heavy party night at W&L.
“With most collegiate recovery programs, the administration doesn’t acknowledge that there is an issue,” Evans said, “but our admin immediately recognized it and was so supportive. We have a ton of funding because of that.”
Luder also advises the Washingtonian Society, checking in with Evans on a weekly basis, and Evans comes up with programming that is open to all students. That has recently included haunted house trips, paintball and an “Oktsoberfest” party just before Halloween that featured pumpkin carving, treats and conversation.
Evans worries that awareness about the society may be down because students missed a year on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic. She wants to spread the word that the group is open to any and all students, whether they’re just curious or they are seriously struggling with substance use. She invites individuals to contact her at email@example.com for a private conversation. She also invites other student groups to get in touch if they’re interested in participating in recovery ally training with the Washingtonian Society.
“Ultimately there are so many students who experience substance and mental health issues,” she said. “I think the Washingtonian Society can really transform someone’s life. It saved my life, and I have seen it save other people’s lives–and not just save it, but transform it for the better.”
For most students, college is the first time in their lives when they’ll be able to make their own choices without parental input. That can be both exciting and daunting, so it’s natural to want to talk through those moments with someone who understands – and that’s not always an adult. The W&L students who volunteer to support their peers want nothing more than to make a difference in someone’s life.
“If we can help one person, with all of our training, to live a little bit more of a joyful life and manage things that are bothering them or hurting them,” Maxwell said, “then it’s all worth it.”
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