As mental health issues mount during the COVID-19 pandemic, college students are among those facing lots of stress. A new initiative at SUNY New Paltz aims to outfit students with coping skills, with the help of their peers.
The Student Psychological Resilience Project Fund provides students with the training and skills needed to cope with stress related to the pandemic and multiple other challenges through a peer advocacy model. Under the guidance of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at SUNY New Paltz, Deputy Director Karla Vermeulen is helping to guide the program
“And so basically we spent this summer recruiting a group of 11 students and giving them some pretty intensive training in stress response, psychological first aid, stress inoculation, time management, all sorts of issues like that," Vermeulen says. "And now they have taken over, and they are doing all this great outreach and programming to their fellow students to try and address not clinical level psychological reactions — that’s what we have the Psychological Counseling Center and OASIS and Haven for — this is really more looking at stress reduction and ways to address peer support and really building resilience and supporting mental health in that regard.”
Josh Lococo is a junior and resident advisor on campus and has many first-year students under his purview.
“We’ve been doing social media campaigns for the last few weeks on time management and learning how to manage your stressors when you’ve got a lot of responsibilities between different classes and not necessarily a lot of structure to do the work because it’s all online and kind of on your own schedule,” Lococo says. “We’ve also been talking about mindfulness of not losing touch with your emotional state and mental well-being while dealing with all of these stressors at once.”
“Yeah, there is some concern about COVID, but I think more people are stressed out about how classes are running, how can we meet graduation requirements and things of that nature,” says LeFever.
Brianna LeFever is a School Counseling graduate student and, like Lococo, a student resilience advocate for the project.
“So I’m in my second year of the graduate program for school counseling, so I have a different interpretation of how I’m reacting to this all. So, in the grad program, one of our biggest issues, specifically with the school counseling program, has been placing, getting placed for internships, and especially in the schools it’s hard because the school districts may not want to have interns come in, things like that,” LeFever says. “So we’ve been dealing with a lot of stress, mainly around internships, and also for the first-year graduate students, they don’t have the opportunity to really connect with us second-year students. And it’s hard because last year, when I was in my first year, connecting with the second-year students was everything. They gave us information about things in the program and things we should look forward to and what not. So trying to build that sense of community within the graduate program has been a little difficult”
Vermeulen says she’s not aware of a project like the Student Psychological Resilience Project at other schools.
“I mean, certainly a lot of programs have peer advising or peer support or peer mentorship programs, but I’ not aware of any that are focused specifically on building resilience like this. So I’m very much hoping actually that this can become a model for other institutions. We’re keeping track of how all this is developed, and hopefully at the end of this we’ll have a toolkit and be able to write up some research on this because I think it has the potential to be really effective, partly because it’s not the faculty and staff dictating what they think are the concerns of the students. Because we have this team of student resilience advocates, they are literally on the ground — they’re talking to their peers, they’re experiencing some of these stressors,” says Vermeulen. “So they have all the insights and that’s why they are really driving the content and the programming, at this point. I did the training and now I’m sitting back and watching them take it over, which is great. I really think this model could work in other places as well, hopefully.”
The new program is made possible by support from alumnus Ira Schreck and his wife, Barbara Ginsberg, residents of nearby High Falls in Ulster County.
“It’s going to be very strange whenever this is over, whenever we get back to whatever the new normal is going to be, what is the long-term effect going to be on students of having had at least a semester-and-a-half probably of remote learning, how are people going to feel comfortable being back in person again,” Vermeulen says.
Though students like Lococo are on campus, the majority of courses are remote.
“It is a very weird mix of emotions to be on campus but also still be doing everything virtually, especially for my RA staff,” says Lococo. “It’s like we all live in the same building but all of our meetings have to be virtual.”
LeFever says the program can be a resource beyond just for college students.
“I know there have been some professors and people within the college as far as administration who see the content that we’re creating and think, hey, I can implement that in my own life,” says LeFever. “So I definitely say check our social media pages.”
You can follow the project on Instagram and Twitter @ np_reslience.