Peer Support will continue at King’s this year after a donation from Fred and Elizabeth Fountain extended the program’s funding until 2021.
Up until the Fountains’ donation earlier this year, the Stay Connected Mental Health Project’s funding for the program was going to end in 2020. It now extends until 2021, but after that, the King’s and all other universities will have to fund the programs themselves.
In response to a Facebook message, outgoing Assistant Dean of Students Virginia Wilmhoff said the university has the funding to continue the program.
Since 2015, the peer support program has given students a safe space to speak one-on-one with another student who knows what it’s like to struggle with mental health, and has the training to be a peer supporter. The training takes 16 hours and follows a program that combines training from the Nova Scotia Certified Peer Support Specialist Program with other training available in Canada.
This fall, Peer Support will run virtual workshops and hangouts instead of in-person one-on-one support due to risks surrounding COVID-19.
According to Brenna Bagnell, “You can never have too much mental health support.”
Bagnell is one of King’s two peer supporters, starting last year. She said, “Through learning how to help other students it’s really helped me realize I need to take better care of myself as well and I learned a lot of skills for how to take care of my mental health as well as my physical health … It’s helped me become a better person. For me it’s definitely been a life changing position to have. I’m really really thankful for it.”
Peer supporters are trained through the Stay Connected Mental Health Project, which started the program. The project exists to help young people using mental health and addiction services transition to adult services when they are no longer eligible for youth services.
Fred and Elizabeth Fountain helped create the project in 2013 in memory of their son, Alex Fountain, who took his own life in 2009 at 20 years old. They gave $1,050,000 to the QEII Foundation in 2013 to launch the project, and then another donation of $150,000 in 2017 to help keep it running.
As a part of their goal of making it easier for young people to access professional mental health services, the project funds and supports peer support programs on five university campuses in Halifax: Dalhousie University, University of King’s College, NSCAD University, St. Mary’s University and Mount Saint Vincent University.
Antoinette O’Keefe, a third-year student at King’s, has attended one of Peer Support’s events where students were able to ask anonymous questions.
“It was a whole bunch of people. Just welcomed into the space, … they had somebody from either South House or the Youth Project, … I just got to sit around with a bunch of pals, … They were able to create [a positive space] where it was comfy and cozy,” said O’Keefe.
“When that first step is being able to be a peer, and you’re able to drop in whenever it works for you, that is the biggest thing,” said O’Keefe. “If you have to go to Dal Health or a psychologist and you have to make an appointment and you have to go sit in a fluorescently lit waiting room, that’s really off putting. [Peer support] makes [mental health support] more accessible, and that’s very helpful.”
Before Peer Support has announced any plans for the year, O’Keefe said they would like to see support provided by phone call or texting to reduce anxiety for students who may feel uncomfortable calling or video chatting. This would be a way to ease them into reaching out for mental health support.
Deborah Phillips is the Stay Connected Mental Health Project’s coordinator and trains all the peer supporters. She is confident each campus is committed to providing the program when universities have to begin funding peer support themselves at the end of this academic year.
“As we know, particularly now that there’s going to be additional stressors for students, we know that students are going to require support in different ways. And we continue to believe that sometimes the best support comes from other students,” said Phillips.
Once the universities take over funding individually, there may be changes to the contracts and compensation peer support receives. Phillips said after five years, the service is now embedded in each of the campuses and she suspects any changes the universities make will only be for the better.