Chancellor Malatras Announces New SUNY Student Mental Health Peer Advocates Training Program to Help Connect Students in Need with Expanded Mental Health Resources Across SUNY

April 1, 2021

SUNY's Peer Advocates Initiative Developed by the Student Voices Action Committee—Program to Start with Training 500 Students in April

Peer Advocates Part of Larger SUNY Effort to Address Mental Health and Wellness Issues on Campuses—Nearly 40% of College-Age Students Experience a Significant Mental Health Issue

SUNY Builds on #ReachOutSUNY Program with New Video to Broaden Awareness of Mental Health Issues and Resources

Photos from today's visit can be viewed online.

New York, NY – With the pandemic exacerbating mental health struggles among college students nationwide, State University of New York Chancellor Jim Malatras today announced a new SUNY Student Mental Health Peer Advocates Training Program to enable students to reach out to their peers showing signs of depression or distress, and deliver valuable mental health resources, including referrals to dedicated crisis and counseling centers for students in need. It is the second initiative developed and advocated for by members of the Student Voices Action Committee, which was established last fall to advise SUNY leadership on emerging critical issues and challenges facing students, and sets in motion SUNY's first agreement with Active Minds to train peer advocates on each SUNY campus to combat mental health issues.

SUNY's Peer Advocates Initiative is part of a larger program to assist students amid growing concerns nationwide on mental health struggles. Active Minds reports 39 percent of students in college experience a significant mental health issues, and CDC survey results show the rates of college-age adults (ages 18-24) contemplating suicide has also increased. In 2018, one in 10 college-age adults nationally contemplated suicide, and during the first wave of the pandemic, that grew to one in four college-age adults nationally this past June.

SUNY will begin training students starting with members of the Student Voices Action Committee, Student Assembly, campus resident assistants, student veterans, students with disabilities, Educational Opportunity Program students, and those employed at SUNY's childcare centers for students—about 500 students, who will be together virtually for the training on April 10, 2021. The Student Mental Health Peer Advocates Training Program will be expanded to more students at a later date.

SUNY will use Active Minds VAR: Validate, Appreciate® tool, one of many specifically for colleges, to train students to assist in non-crisis situations, helping them know the steps to opening up a fuller conversation with someone who is showing signs that they may need additional support.

"Feelings of isolation, loss, and persistent anxiety throughout the pandemic have exacerbated mental health and wellness issues among college students. Studies have shown that they are more likely to tell a friend they are struggling before anyone else. And if students are going to tell their friends first, we have to make sure we have as many students as possible trained to give support," said Chancellor Malatras. "That is at the heart of our new program—which will train and empower students to spot classmates who are struggling; approach them in a comforting, private, and unintrusive manner; discuss these feelings with care and sensitivity; and if needed point them toward further mental health services available on our SUNY campuses. I want to commend members of the SUNY Student Voices Action Committee, who have been strong proponents of launching SUNY's Peer Advocates Initiative. I am especially proud to lead a university system comprised of so many students who are sensitive to mental health issues, cognizant of their complexity and impact, and willing to step in and play a leading role in the solution."

To coincide with the launch of the Student Mental Health Peer Advocates Training Program, SUNY also released a new video as a part of Chancellor Malatras' #ReachOutSUNY public awareness campaign designed to shatter the stigma associated with mental health struggles and asking for help, while educating students about available services.

SUNY Board Trustee Eunice A. Lewin said, "It is our duty to look out for the health and wellbeing of every SUNY student who comes through our doors. Today's announcement highlights our commitment to equipping our students—who already are ready and willing to assist their peers in need—with the necessary tools and training to care for and help those who are going through a tough time. We want our students to know that we have heard and continue to hear their concerns, your peers are here to lift you up during these darker times, and SUNY will continue to work hard to ensure that we offer broad mental health services so no student has to suffer in silence."

SUNY Board Trustee and President, SUNY Student Assembly, Bradley Hershenson said, "The pandemic has escalated the pressures on college students, but seeking out therapy and talking about one's mental health is still stigmatized in today's society. Together we can help each other break through that barrier. On behalf of the SUNY Student Assembly, we are proud to be among the first students to receive this important training so we can be empowered to help classmates in need. My thanks to Chancellor Malatras for supporting this valuable training."

SUNY College of Optometry President David A. Heath said, "We are honored to be the site of this announcement today that will serve as a lifeline for many of our young people coping with mental health issues. At SUNY College of Optometry, we have ramped up our efforts to provide on- and off-campus services and outreach for our students who are coping with issues such as depression, anxiety, stress, and social isolation. As healthcare educators and clinicians, we recognize the need to provide an environment that allows students to seek the resources and support they need without the additional worry of shame and stigma associated with managing mental health. SUNY Peer Advocates is a tremendous initiative that has the potential to improve the climate across all of our campuses, allowing students to feel understood, safe and secure about seeking help."

Lindsey Boody, Student Voices Action Committee member and Doctor of Optometry 2nd year, SUNY Optometry, said, "In addition to providing an important support system to students, peer advocates will be a present feature on campuses to spark the continued awareness of mental health. They are familiar faces of fellow students who are trained to help work through times of struggle by listening and providing important resources. Growing the mental health community with peer advocates will encourage those who may have been afraid to ask for help before to start that conversation and work towards solutions."

The peer-to-peer approach to mental wellness is another way of connecting with students who may otherwise resist seeking professional help, in spite of debilitating anxiety, stress, and depression made worse by the pandemic. According to Active Minds, 67 percent of young adults tell a friend they are struggling before they share their struggles with anyone else.

SUNY's Peer Advocates Initiative is based on the recommendation of SUNY's Student Voices Action Committee, which is composed of 27 students representing every SUNY sector—from university centers to comprehensive, technical, and community colleges. The group's first recommendation was announced earlier this year to make sure every SUNY campus has food pantry refrigeration for fresh food and proteins. The students were assembled by SUNY's Senior Advisor to the Chancellor and Student Advocate Dr. John Graham and charged with amplifying the collective student voice in key discussions and decisions that impact students.

"The college years can be challenging times as many young adults leave home for the first time and assume new responsibilities," said Dr. Graham. "For some, it is also the time of life when mental health disorders first emerge. In recent months, these struggles have become more challenging as we continue to deal with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. If we are to help our students, it's imperative that we empower them with different ways of getting help while also working to erase the stigma that still persists around seeking assistance for issues around mental health."

In addition to being a resource for fellow students, SUNY's Peer Advocates will work to support campus behavioral health professionals by promoting mental health among students and encouraging those in distress to seek services and resources. Within their campus communities, Peer Advocates will be expected to serve on campus task forces and help organize events around stress reduction, resilience, and suicide prevention. Peer Advocates will provide student perspectives on how to reduce the stigma around mental health, address mental health disparities among students from historically marginalized groups, and promote help-seeking behaviors among students.

Four other members of the Student Voices Action Committee provided comment:

Shonte' Anderson, Sophomore, Sullivan County Community College, said, "Peers are an optimal advocate as we can identify with our fellow students and their struggles and concerns as we face them ourselves. We can help them cope with obstacles as well as be an ear and a shoulder to lean on. I believe with training and our collaboration, helps build a strong and solid resource for all students to utilize. We not only speak from true experiences, we speak from the heart, and our peers feel that. Being connected to one another during trying times is a powerful way to help combat the everyday worries that we as students face each and every day."

Collin Lacki, Sophomore, Niagara County Community College, said, "Peer advocacy is something that can be applied to just about any group of students. A group that it is crucial to is students with disabilities. Students with disabilities like myself, often have to negotiate and bend over backwards to get what we need to be on an equal playing field as our able-bodied peers. Just about every student with disabilities has had this experience in one way, shape, or form. Therefore, it is essential that we have advocates on our side that also empathize with our struggles. It is important to remember that we are more than our disabilities and are students, just like everyone else, before anything and should be afforded the same care and looking after as any other group of students."

Kristen Lasker, Senior, SUNY New Paltz, said, "Peer advocacy has always been one of the most successful ways to not only connect with those around you but learn from these tough situations. Mental health is something that so many people struggle with, and to be guided by those who have similar experiences and are in similar milestones in life creates a credible and genuine advocate. I personally have found solutions to my struggles with mental health with the help of these peers, who have taken the form of my classmates, teammates, and roommates."

Mike Losak, Senior, SUNY Oneonta, said, "Promoting peer advocates will be beneficial to all students throughout the SUNY system. There are those students who are sometimes uncomfortable talking with adults about what they may be going through so having a peer there for would make them more comfortable. As someone who has struggled with mental health in the past, seeing the direction and action that has been taken towards promoting awareness for mental health is more than anything I could have imagined."

As the initiative moves forward, Peer Advocates will be trained in policy development and advocacy skills. They will also be asked to assist in the selection of tools and resources to promote the mental health and well-being of students on their campuses.

Last semester, SUNY announced an expansion of mental health services and resources, and launched the #ReachOutSUNY campaign to reduce the stigma around seeking help for mental health issues. These services include SUNY's Student Tele-Counseling Network, which has been expanded to include 16 campuses; virtual campus counseling centers, the Crisis Text Line (Text "Got5U to 741-741) and a partnership with Thriving Campus, a web-based application that links students to off-campus resources across the state and nation. For more information about SUNY's mental health resources please visit https://www.suny.edu/mental-health/.

About the State University of New York
The State University of New York is the largest comprehensive system of higher education in the United States, and more than 95 percent of all New Yorkers live within 30 miles of any one of SUNY’s 64 colleges and universities. Across the system, SUNY has four academic health centers, five hospitals, four medical schools, two dental schools, a law school, the state’s only college of optometry, and manages one US Department of Energy National Laboratory. In total, SUNY serves about 1.3 million students in credit-bearing courses and programs, continuing education, and community outreach programs. SUNY oversees nearly a quarter of academic research in New York. Research expenditures system-wide are nearly $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2021, including significant contributions from students and faculty. There are more than three million SUNY alumni worldwide, and one in three New Yorkers with a college degree is a SUNY alum. To learn more about how SUNY creates opportunity, visit suny.edu.


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