I have an interest in mental health care, in both definitions of the word “interest.” I find the topic interesting to read about and discuss, and as a person suffering from mental illness, it is in my best interest for these services to be available, affordable and transparent. As news began to trickle out about Wolverine Support Network, a system of student-run mental health support groups, my curiosity was peaked.

WSN is an initiative of Central Student Government (something in which I certainly do not have an interest) and was one of the major proposals outlined during last spring’s student elections. The idea of student-led support groups came from CSG President Bobby Dishell, who had seen similar initiatives played out at high schools and smaller colleges. WSN launched on Jan. 22, and soon groups of 10 to 12 students will begin weekly meetings.

As the program slowly unveiled itself, I was deeply skeptical. Some students I spoke with expressed a lack of confidence in these groups, fearing that the issues faced by marginalized students would be misunderstood or dismissed by their peers. My chief concern was, and still is, the concept of loosely trained students acting as group leaders, especially if this could result in attention and resources moving away from professional clinicians.

To further complicate the matter, WSN has been strongly endorsed by Counseling and Psychological Services, a University service with a mixed track record. CAPS has served thousands of students this year alone, but it’s also the place that — for me and many others — told us an initial appointment would be two weeks away and a follow-up would take another two weeks. I’ve had good and bad experiences at CAPS, and have heard the same from numerous peers. As the vital campus center for mental health, “half good, half bad” appeared to me as closer to failure than success.

A discussion with Dr. Todd Sevig, director of CAPS, helped me begin to see WSN (and CAPS) in a different light. Sevig, who has spent 25 years at the University, called the idea of a peer support network “the best thing since sliced bread.”

Explaining his feelings, Sevig framed WSN as a point of entry, perhaps for a student who will use clinical therapy down the road, or as the first and only interaction another student will need to build better coping skills.

“We try to approach ‘mental health, mental illness’ as really resting on a continuum, where, really, in some sense of the word or definition, all 43,000 students could use help and support around mental health,” Sevig explained. “For some students, it will be easier to talk to a peer than one of us as a good first step.”

Sevig made a good point, and I was reminded that my condition and personal preferences lay on a very different part of this continuum than most students. As for those awful wait times, during the Fall 2013 semester, students waited 10 days on average between coming in and seeing someone at CAPS. During the Fall 2014 semester, under a new initial appointment system, student wait times fell to an average of 3.7 days — and this is with an 18 percent increase in the number of students coming in and asking for help.

CSG President Bobby Dishell and WSN student leader Nick Raja both echoed many of Sevig’s points, describing peer support groups as having a lower barrier for students to get help. This is a lower barrier than going to CAPS, but also a lower barrier to something that may be even more difficult for some students, like telling their parents.

“It’s an entry point for someone who didn’t grow up with a therapist in their home town, and its an entry point for someone who took a semester off to do inpatient,” Dishell explained. “For some people, it’ll be a supplement. For other people, it’ll be all they need.”

Dishell also assured me, “We’re not training therapists.”

Raja, who will be leading a student group with at least one other leader, spoke similarly, saying, “It’s not therapy, it’s for everyone.” He further explained that the leader’s role is to facilitate, not to be a counselor, and that a large part of WSN leader training was understanding how to recommend students for more comprehensive treatment.

Dishell, though humble about the network’s goals in helping individual students, has made it no secret that WSN has ambitious aims, saying, “In five years, hopefully less, it’ll just be something that you do. It’ll be engrained in the culture.”

Raja, who wrote an op-ed earlier this fall promoting WSN, mentioned the idea of “changing campus culture,” a promise that seems to be made by countless student groups every semester.

I discussed with Sevig how lately, campus culture has been changing in the wrong direction.

“Every year, it seems, that the pressure to be the Leaders and the Best has gotten higher and higher and higher — and that has some consequences,” Sevig said.

One of the biggest consequences, Sevig explained, is “a sense of ‘I can’t fail; I can’t even do average work.’ ”

On a campus built with the purpose of education, students are instead faced with a perfectionist mentality that stifles learning and fuels anxiety. This is a culture that all of us are familiar with, and one that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

For now, I’ll cling to some of my skepticism about WSN, at least in the big picture. However, student leaders backing WSN are going in the right direction, as is CAPS under Sevig’s leadership. Hopefully some of this work really will “change campus culture” — in that, I would certainly find quite a high level of interest.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.

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