WALNUT, CA—It’s very hard to go through an unprecedented time alone.
In the throes of adapting to life in COVID-19 quarantine, Walnut High’s Peer Counselors have continued their quest to help others.
“I hope I am seen as a resource that my peers can trust, confide in, and go to when they are feeling alone and need someone to listen,” said senior Audrey Day, a third-year member.
The onset of the global health crisis pressed school leadership into quickly adapting in order to continue providing wellness assistance.
“We made the decision to take what we do into the digital world as the school year began,” shared school psychologist Dr. Rob Coad.
Teens have been hit hard by stresses of the pandemic, missing out on milestones, and worrying about their families.
“We hope that no student will have to face adversity alone,” said Coad
Peer Counseling is not a club, but a diverse group of dedicated students, 15 this year, who come together to aide fellow schoolmates.
They have been trained to be good listeners and offer care, but not to give advice.
Senior Anali Cruz feels it’s especially important on a large campus like Walnut High that students know they have peers they can trust to help get through hardships they may be facing.
“And distance learning has caused an even greater need for emotional support,” Cruz shared.
“I want students to know that although they may feel alone while stuck at home, the Peer Counselors are here to provide them the support they need.”
Walnut High’s philosophy is that every student should have several people on campus who know their name and know something about them beyond the classroom, according to Coad.
Peer Counseling is just one of the social-emotional supports offered on campus, along with school counselors, lifeline cards, safe classrooms, and online resources.
Referrals come to Peer Counseling from many sources including grade level coordinators, teachers, and students clicking on the “Need Emotional Support” website link, according to longtime advisor Drew Johannsen.
Teens now make Google Meet appointments to chat with student counseling pairs who guide them to finding solutions to their issues.
“It’s vital to make sure they feel that their problems - big or small - are valid and recognized,” Day said.
The online peer assistance sessions are tailored to meet each student’s particular needs and vary in length from 30-60 minutes.
“I’ve come in contact with many fellow students who experience loneliness, rejection, abuse, and other life challenges,” said senior Chelsea Tian.
“They may appear as though all is well and hide in pain behind a smile.”
The 17-year-old shared that her “heart goes out” to the hurting high school students.
“I know I can’t provide a solution but I hope that a gentle touch or kind word might offer them comfort,” she said.
Discussions are kept confidential unless there is a risk of suicide, self-injury, child abuse or a danger that a student will hurt someone else.
The fifth period Peer Counseling class was finally able to gather on campus last month for a coveted in-person training.
“Being together, even with the many COVID-19 restrictions, felt like such an opportunity to give them a small dose of normalcy and connection,” Johannsen said.
“These amazing young men and women have been denied the Peer Counseling experience and yet all they want to do is help other people,” he added.
“I was already proud of them and that session just grew that feeling to new levels!”
Coad compared the face-to-face experience to athletes in training.
“We felt our PC’s needed to practice working together on some of their most important skills: how to listen to understand others’ feelings at a deeper level and how to communicate support and encouragement when meeting with a peer,” he said.
Initially, the group was a little quiet and reserved after not being on campus in over six months.
“We were able to see firsthand how important peer connection and relationships truly are as students literally came to life after spending a few minutes together,” Coad added.
A blindfolded trust walk activity provided the teens with insight of the courage it takes to reach out and share problems with a stranger.
“It can be scary and uncomfortable to ask others to go through your hardest battles with you,” Day explained.
“This helped me see through their lens and be more empathic.”
“I realized that bonds with classmates form a trust that can be taken into our counseling sessions,” Cruz shared after the session.
In the past months, advisors learned that teens can be reluctant to reach out for the online service.
Forming relationships with students who would benefit from peer support has been challenging during distance learning, Coad said.
“We’ve had to explore several strategies to find ways to open that connection and build a personal relationship.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is that appointments are only conducted during school hours and only when adult supervision is available.
“This way we are able to respond immediately if our PCs find a student who is in crisis,” said Coad.
Tien said that many students are experiencing greater stress and anxiety living in the pandemic world.
“We human beings are social creatures and the absence of human touch and interactions from quarantine and social distancing have made a tremendous impact on our wellbeing and mental health,” Tian said.
“Our service is profoundly needed more than ever before to stand by our classmates so they don’t feel that they have to struggle alone.”
The peer counselors have also learned how much they rely on each other during the distance learning.
“It is comforting to know that I can still reach out to any one of my PC classmates and they will be there for me wholeheartedly,” Cruz said.
“We’re all in this boat together in this pandemic!” Tien added.
She has been staying positive by using technology to keep in touch, family walks and game nights, and even Zoom dance classes.
“What’s helping me thrive is knowing that this is just a temporary setting, it will pass, and we shall overcome it.”