The Wellness Center at Yale-NUS contains a small, white-walled room with a fuzzy rug, two small couches, pillows, a tea kettle and a small stuffed animal. Here, five nights a week, Yale-NUS students can come to talk with the certainty that their peers will be there to listen.
This fall, students at Yale-NUS launched the college’s first peer counseling program, P.S. We Care. The planning for the program started two years ago, when the group’s leaders were freshmen. Now juniors, the program leaders organize counseling walk-in hours from 9 p.m. to midnight on weekdays — hours when the campus Wellness Center is closed.
While group organizers, student counselors and Yale-NUS faculty members spoke positively about mental health and wellness resources already available to students, many spoke of P.S. We Care as an intermediary between students and the college’s professional counseling staff.
“We’re here to listen,” said Jolanda Nava YNUS ’17, one of P.S. We Care’s founding organizers. “We find that people — when they are upset — what they need is a space to say it out loud and sort out their thoughts.”
Nava, along with Christopher Tee YNUS ’17, another group leader, said P.S. We Care’s job is not to solve students’ problems, but rather to provide a non-judgmental space where any personal issues can be discussed. Over the past three years, peer counselors received training from professional counselors at the Wellness Center and outside the college, as well as from students who participated in peer counseling programs in their high schools.
Sha-En Yeo, senior manager of the Yale-NUS Wellness Center, said one of the major benefits of the peer counseling program is that it holds drop-in hours after the Wellness Center has closed. Students also often have to book appointments to see a professional counselor at the Wellness Center, whereas P.S. We Care functions solely on a walk-in basis.
Yeo said training sessions for the peer counselors included sessions targeted at identifying symptoms of depression and improving active listening skills, as well as role-plays in which the counselors practice dealing with stress or relationship issues. Training took place weekly starting in the fall of 2013 as the group grew from roughly 10 to 15 counselors.
Peer counselors may also refer counselees to the Wellness Center, though they are not obligated to report sessions to professional counselors, except in the case of potentially dangerous circumstances.
The opening of the peer counseling program also casts light on how Yale-NUS will approach various issues surrounding mental health as the years pass. Nava said her group is still grappling with what types of policies would apply to a student who took a semester off for mental health reasons, for example. But, despite the college’s relative youth, students and college rectors alike spoke positively about mental health resources already available to students.
Brian McAdoo, rector of the Yale-NUS residential college Elm College, said that in addition to Wellness Center resources, students at Yale-NUS have access to counseling services at the neighboring National University of Singapore, as well as a group housed at the Singapore American Club that specializes in issues relating to an international clientele. In addition, professional counselors from the Yale-NUS Wellness Center hold a 30-minute meeting with every freshman during the first semester.
“Given our smaller student body, we have been able to reach out to each and every student by taking a proactive approach,” Yeo said. “Given that other universities have a larger population, they will probably need to approach mental health and wellness differently.”
Because of the college’s small student body, Nava and Tee said peer counselors cannot maintain the same level of anonymity as, for example, Walden Peer Counselors — Yale’s undergraduate anonymous and confidential peer counseling service. Even so, Nava, Tee and two other peer counselors interviewed said they do not see a lack of total anonymity as being an issue given the college’s community feel.
Peer counselor Joceline Yong YNUS ’18 said she originally joined the group because she was interested in receiving proper training in listening and counseling skills.
“I think that peer counseling is a unique service that complements the existing resources available through the Wellness Center rather than providing something that attempts to rival or replace existing resources,” Yong said. “There are occasions where simply having a nonjudgmental listening ear, a fresh perspective or an objective third-party opinion is what people need, rather than long-term professional help.”
Jordan Bovankovich YNUS ’18 also said she does not see P.S. We Care as a reaction to the lack of mental health resources on campus, but rather as a different kind of resource to reinforce what was already in place. Bovankovich said she thinks peer counseling is a valuable resource on campus because it provides a platform free of hierarchy for students to express their thoughts.
But the president of the college’s LGBTQ awareness and advocacy group, the G Spot — who wanted to remain anonymous for privacy reasons — said there may be reservations within the LGTBQ community toward approaching a peer counselor since the community is small and there may be confidentiality concerns. He said that even while he wants to support the peer counseling group, he does not think these concerns are unique to the LGBTQ community.
As it grows toward a student body of 1,000, Yale-NUS currently has three classes of undergraduates.