Disclaimer: The writer has written about her personal experience and journey with her mental health struggles in this article, which we acknowledge varies from individual to individual. While SMU Peer Helpers are passionate about helping and supporting their peers and have gone through basic training to that end, they are not professionally trained counsellors and their support may not necessarily be sufficient for you. Thus, if you require further assistance, please do consider getting professional help from the Mrs Wong Kwok Leong Student Wellness Centre.
My heart drummed against my chest and my breaths quickened. A flurry of thoughts rushed from the crevices of my mind, sweeping away my sanity. I froze. The all too familiar feeling of panic mixed with anxiety gripped me just as I caught a glimpse of his figure down the hallway. A few seconds later, I took off in the opposite direction, anything to get away from the figure that triggered my reaction.
While I was still in a haze of rational and irrational thoughts, I reached for my phone and did what I never did before. I texted John*, a Peer Helper, asking if he could spare a few minutes.
Up until that point, I had not experienced Peer Helpers. I only knew them as a club in the school that advocated for mental health. Furthermore, I only knew that John was a trained Peer Helper because we were both in another CCA at the time too, where he had mentioned it in passing.
Yet that day, I was feeling extra anxious, helpless, and quite frankly tired of going through these episodes. For the past two years, I’d been having sporadic anxiety triggers that I felt I was unable to speak to anyone about. I had confided in my close friends, but they never got close to understanding the extent that the situation took a hold on me. I desperately wanted a way to cope rather than just sweeping it under the rug. Someone who could objectively listen and assess the situation. Someone who could understand. Someone who could empathize.
Ten minutes into my chat with John, my breathing stabilized. John’s calming presence seemed to influence the room and even re-calibrate my inner state. He skillfully framed his questions to understand my situation without potentially triggering more anxiousness. With every question, he prompted me to engage in logical thinking. At the end of it, I gained a sense of grounding and clarity.
Seeking a Peer Helper was a positive experience for me and it changed my attitude of being vulnerable to strangers. For a long time, opening up was far from easy to me.
Trauma, stigma, and reservations
When I first left an emotionally abusive arrangement, my self-esteem was at rock bottom. I was never enough, even as I tirelessly walked on eggshells. Being in that environment changed me. My trauma and wounds spoke in my place and my feelings of guilt and shame became a barrier to seeking help. I was stuck in an echo chamber of negative self-talk and instead of trying to get out of it, I felt deserving of it. Whenever I felt anxious, I questioned if it was ever “severe enough” to qualify requiring help.
Moreover, I worried about the stigma surrounding taking steps to seeking help. Would the students gossip about me? Would people find out if I spoke to a Peer Helper? Would it affect how others viewed me? Those were very real considerations prior to the session with John, that made me put off peer support despite knowing their existence and, honestly, that they probably would be able to help me.
The power of lived experience
After my first successful session with John, I felt that there was no need to have a follow up session. Even though it was impactful, I preferred to fight my own battles. Semesters went by before I crossed paths with another Peer Helper.
I had actually met Jane* earlier on but never thought to reach out because I felt ashamed that she knew a thing or two about my story. However, after experiencing yet another anxiety trigger, I found myself face to face with Jane for my second peer helping session. What was different was that I forged a stronger rapport with her.
As she shared healthy strategies to cope and her own mental health struggles that she still encounters to this day, she expressed how her personal experiences allowed her to spot students with milder distress symptoms, especially if they were not already aware of it themselves. She tells her story to show others, especially those with mental illness or simply poor mental well-being, that the human condition is strong enough to overcome it.
“Because of my experience, students I speak to know that when I empathize or use phrases like ‘I relate to this feeling’, it is genuine. I am not merely saying it to make them feel good.”
“Some students are sensitive to what others say to them when they seek support. They would not hesitate to tell you: you don’t understand because you have not experienced what I’ve experienced,” Jane adds.
Listening to Jane’s lived experience, I felt seen and heard.
The hearts driving Peer Helpers
Having lived experience is not a requirement to becoming a Peer Helper. Instead, anyone can take on this role to learn skills to support students in school.
“The trainings provide a lot of different frameworks that you can use in different ways to get your friend to share more about their issue. The frameworks also provide a more "concrete way" to help your friends. For example, if you keep talking and find out more about the issues, the trainings provide a lot of the "what's next?" to lead the client/your friend towards some form of actionable result,” Peter* shared.
If I had to pick a word to describe mental health struggles, it would be ‘invisible’. Yet, this invisibility does not discount the detrimental effects that I and many others have experienced. Like Moffat Machingura said, “the first step is the hardest in every journey”. My first real step was in reaching out for support. For others, this first step might look different. If there is no one that you currently feel comfortable getting support from, I firmly believe in the power of those who likely had a similar experience or are simply experienced to speak in a way you feel safe and respected.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
This article was written in collaboration with SMU Peer Helpers and the Mrs Wong Kwok Leong Student Wellness Centre (MWKLSWC) in commemoration of Mental Health Awareness Week. SMU Peer Helpers are full-time undergraduate students selected and trained to support the work of professional counsellors as the MWKLSWC.
Please feel free to reach out to them via their contact information provided below. Do use your school emails to email them if you choose to contact them via email.
Mrs Wong Kwok Leong Student Wellness Centre (MWKLSWC)
Tel: 6828 0786
SMU Peer Helpers