Lukas Flippo, Senior Photographer

For 50 years, an Old Campus basement has served as a safe haven for students in need of a listening ear. 

From breakups to academic pressure, Walden Peer Counseling has offered anonymous help to students during their toughest times since 1972. The group fulfills a unique niche on campus with its peer-to-peer counseling model, covering gaps that the University’s mental health services sometimes cannot. To honor the occasion, Walden plans to host an anniversary celebration with past and current Walden counselors in the upcoming months.

“Things like Walden are essential because there’s a level of crises that can be effectively dealt with through a peer counseling program,” director of Walden from 1988-1990 and licensed clinical psychologist Brian Litzenberger ’90 told the News. “I think that it is a great triage model for treating short-term situations, and there’s a wedge of client population and experience that doesn’t really have a lot of other places to go — and Walden can prevent things getting worse for people.”

The News spoke to Walden’s current directors under the request of anonymity to preserve the essence of Walden’s ethos, which revolves around the confidentiality and anonymity of every conversation.

At present, Walden has 22 active counselors, with several undergraduates who have counseled in the past remaining involved in the Walden community. While usage statistics could not be shared out of privacy concerns, the directors informed the News of a decline in calls and walk-in visits since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the past, we relied on word of mouth recommendations and our reputation to drive incoming callers, but due to Covid, upperclassmen did not have the chance to pass on our services to new Yalies,” the directors wrote in a joint statement to the News. “In the coming months, we will be promoting our services through creative means (we have to remain anonymous) and hopefully seeing increased call volume.”

Walden’s counselors undergo a rigorous training program in peer counseling before they begin offering their services. Counselors receive a two-pronged education, with both a lecture-based, theoretical approach and hands-on training. The directors emphasized that prior to setting foot in the Walden premises, every counselor is equipped with the tools necessary to handle any situations that may arise.

Training for Walden counselors does not end when their work begins. Counselors continue to receive weekly training to master the “Walden Method.” During these meetings, leaders of Yale’s mental health initiatives may drop in to discuss the function of their respective programs, such as the Good Life Center, Yale College Community Care, Yale Mental Health & Counseling and the Chaplain’s Office. 

“Walden Peer Counseling has served as a wonderful partner for helping students understand the number of well-being and mental health resources available to them,” interim Director of the Good Life Center and Community Wellness Specialist at YC3 Corinne Coia wrote to the News. “[It] serves as a space for students to seek support who may be hesitant or not sure where to start and may feel more comfortable reaching out to a trained peer.”

One of Walden’s roles is to direct callers to resources that may be best suited for their unique circumstances. As a result, counselors must possess extensive knowledge of the mental health resources available on campus. 

Thanks to their unique vantage point, Walden counselors are also able to offer feedback on Yale’s mental health initiatives and advocate for reform within Yale’s resources.

“The program is a great resource that allows students to speak with peers about a variety of issues,” Associate Chief of Outreach and Education at Yale Mental Health & Counseling Debra Gregory told the News. “As part of the Yale community, these peer counselors are also aware of the resources on campus and can direct students as needed. They are not trained professionals, so [they] are not meant to meet a specific mental health need, but to offer peer support and education about resources.”

Walden’s approach has long focused on raising campus awareness of specific mental health issues. In 1985, Walden co-sponsored a series of four sessions dedicated to the problems faced by Yale students, specifically alcoholism, eating disorders, depression and stress. 

“Our sense was that the high achieving Yalie was loath to admit that they could use some emotional support,” said former Walden co-coordinator Janine Simmons 88. “Whereas we believed that the very fact that everyone was in such a high achieving environment only contributed to possible distress and that an anonymous peer counseling service could be an excellent way to help with coping, because we were fellow students who had a real life understanding of common issues, but we were specifically not friends/colleagues with whom someone might not want to admit a self-perceived weakness.”

Walden offers in-person counseling in Welch B Sunday through Thursday from 8 P.M. to 1 A.M., as well as a hotline (203) 432-8255 staffed every night of the academic year classes are in session, from 8 P.M. to 8 A.M.