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Putting Theory Into Practice: A Peer Helpers Reflection

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As a member of the pioneering batch of Peer Helpers, I received some training in basic counselling techniques. This was intended to develop Peer Helpers to have skills to
approach our peers and generate a culture that encouraged people to seek emotional
help from others.

Despite learning all of these, we struggled to find a practical. The situations we encounter on a daily basis are very different from the controlled situations we are exposed to in training. In my experience, we’re more likely to approach our friends than an appointed ‘Peer Helper’, and friends are the most immediate community that can
identify problems from the outset.

Despite the limited application of some counselling skills, I found that some of this
knowledge can be adapted for day-to-day, between-peers situations that can improve
not just our friendships, but the way we perceive and care for each other.

This is not meant to replace going to a counsellor; you should definitely seek professional help if you are struggling.

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Jeanne at the 2016 Mental Health Awareness Week

Noticing the signs

A student books an appointment with a counsellor. They (he or she) know that they have an issue that needs addressing, have a few days in advance to consider what they want to say. A counsellor’s job continues from that point on; they draw information out of students and help them to decipher their jumble of emotions. But as a peer amongst peers, helping others starts prior to this point.

It’s easy to help someone when they are willing to share, but it’s still the job of friends to make sure that those who prefer to conceal their feelings don’t fall through the cracks. It’s generally a matter of paying attention to the people around you: Is someone suddenly acting more withdrawn or irritable? Did something recently happen to them, either in school or at home?

Soon after the counselling module ended in the Peer Helpers Programme, I noticed that one of my friends was facing some difficulties, withdrawing more and more from social interactions. She was hesitant to talk about them to anyone, but as her friend, I knew that this particular situation was having a negative impact on her mental health. Yet raising the issue was difficult: how could I bring the sensitive topic up without causing her to close up? I was terrified that if I pushed too hard, she would withdraw even further. I decided to try to bring it up anyway, and it was not as difficult as it had initially seemed.

‘Are you okay?’ ‘I’ve noticed you’ve been more withdrawn lately, is everything okay with you?’ ‘How are you feeling?’ True, she was hesitant to share her thoughts, but despite some initial awkwardness, simply asking gently and not pressuring for an immediate response was enough to persuade her to relax and be more receptive to me.

In my experience, we’re more likely to approach our friends than an appointed ‘Peer Helper’, and friends are the most immediate community that can identify problems from the outset.

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Talking To Them

This is where the skills of being a peer helper made the biggest impact on the way I treated friendships and emotional sharing. It was originally difficult for me to manage
a conversation when I wanted to help a friend: what do I say next? Will what I say
be beneficial? How do I lead them to continue opening up?

But after PHP, I learned three major counselling tips: ask open questions, be quiet, and summarise. The first one might seem simple, but making an effort to include more questions that prompt substantial answers always makes a huge difference in a conversation. It might feel like forcing a conversation to be one-sided, but if someone is hesitant to open up, yielding the floor to them and giving them a direct question to prompt them to speak more is the key to freeing up a topic for discussion.

This is where silence is helpful. When helping someone, it’s natural to want to speak more, to air your own thoughts.

A lull in a conversation might feel extremely awkward, leading you to push your friend to respond. However, when it comes to emotional matters, giving someone the space to think and consider their emotions is very helpful. If you were the one grappling with your emotions, you would want some time to consider what your feelings are before verbalising them. Being interrupted can be counterproductive; so while your friend is staring into space, quell your fidgeting and wait them out.

At the end of it, however, the most useful tip I learned was completely new to me: summarising. After a lengthy conversation, it’s useful to stop and summarise: either the
entire discussion, or what you think the other person is feeling. It helps to make sure
you’re on the same page, and can lead to the best revelations on both ends. I have been in conversations that lasted several hours; it’s useful to step back for a minute to look back on the progress made. It also demonstrated to the person I was talking to that I understood what they were telling me.

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Reporting Dangerous Behaviour

The most sensitive part of counselling is the area of mental illness and destructive behaviour, and unfortunately, this area of friendships is arguably far more difficult to
navigate. If you visit a professional for help, you are generally aware that if you report
illegal or dangerous behaviour, no matter the extent, authorities or parents are likely
to get involved. However, friendships fall into a dangerous zone: a friend might
confide in you, but wish for you to keep the information a secret.

I have had friends confide in me about various things from self-harm to domestic abuse to suicidal thoughts. While in certain cases, such as those which are immediately life-threatening, informing the relevant authority figures is inarguable, there exists a large threshold for thingswhich do not fall into this category. What if my friend confides something in me, but if authorities were to get involved, it may simply exacerbate the situation?

If you report these issues in certain cases, it may cause the other person to withdraw,
which you may not want if they are in a difficult situation. I’ve occasionally backed
away from being proactive in such situations out of fear that my friends would stop
confiding in me, and deprive themselves of all support.

As a concerned friend, you can care for your friend by persuading your friend to confide
in a trusted adult, offering your company with your friend to approach this trusted
adult. Perhaps in this manner, it helps your friend to see that you are not against them
but companioning them in this journey of pain.However, in my experience, it is good to
share your issue with an authority figure or a counsellor, without going into details, to get their opinion on how you should proceed.

If possible, you should encourage someone going through a tough time to seek help from a trusted adult; if they are wary, you can offer your company with them as moral support. The first few times I sought help from a counsellor, a friend came with me and
helped me to open up about my issues. Having a friend’s encouragement helped me
to relax and trust that my friend was by my side for whatever problems I was facing.


Caring For Yourself

Friendships can be a draining commitment. I have often felt pressure to be there for a
friend 24/7, staying up until three in the morning on Skype to talk to them. It’s a lot
more difficult to detach yourself from helping when you see someone as a friend,
because they are your friend after all – emotional attachment is really unavoidable,
and is generally a good thing!

But it’s important to practise self-care in these situations. It might feel selfish, but
you do need to take time away for yourself, to recharge and check your own mental
health. I sometimes take time to talk to someone else about my own feelings. There’s no point being there for someone all day all night when you yourself aren’t in a really good place, and maintaining emotional distance from the situation can serve you and your friend well.

If not, it can be draining on the both of you, affect your own mental health and wellbeing, and even put a strain on your friendship. It’s nowhere as simple as going
‘Our time is up, bye!’ but perhaps you can tell your friend that you’re being affected,
and maybe need some time to cool down by yourself. You might feel guilty, like you’re
‘abandoning’ your friend. But friendship isn’t a one-way street: you’re a volunteer for
this, you are a human being too, and it’s important to communicate this to the friend
you’re helping. So if you need to take some time to practise self-care, you shouldn’t
begrudge yourself that time.

Overall, friendship creates a big grey area when it comes to helping others. The roles
are not so clearly defined as a therapist or a counsellor, where the person seeking help is aware of a problem and is willing and ready to reveal certain information, with full
awareness of implications.

Friendships are private, intimate affairs, and there’s a lot of space in between ‘having a
problem’ and ‘actively seeking help’ that a friend has to navigate. But this step is usually
the most important for anyone who has a problem. It’s about coming to terms with your
problem, it’s about realising how you feel about something. It’s about all the steps in
between daily life of minor problems and emotions before it builds up to anything more
damaging. Friends are the first support system you have, and the people you’re most
likely to turn to during a crisis.

Sometimes you really can’t help someone, and in those circumstances when it’s really
beyond your capability, the best thing might be to let go of the matter and refer your
friend to someone else. It can be incredibly difficult (I myself am guilty of overtaxing
myself from refusing to give up in impossible situations). However, it’s important to remember that you are a friend who cares, and that care is what matters, not whether or not you can be the One Person to Help them. Friendships are sometimes the first stepping stone – opening your peers up to getting help and encouraging everyone to seek help.

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