New centre ready to open doors to support students

Students, consider it an opportunity to have a private conversation in what should feel as comfortable as a friend’s living room.

Western’s new Peer Support Centre, under the purview of the University Students’ Council (USC), opens later this month. As of Sept. 29, it will offer a new structured support system for Western’s student body, said Alex Benac, USC Vice-President (Internal).

“We’re starting from a new foundation, which is what this year was intended to be. We’ve put a new foundation in place, and we’ve had an incredibly selective recruitment process for volunteers,” Benac said of the new centre, which will be housed in room 256 of the University Community Centre (UCC).

Prior to this year, the USC provided a peer support space in the basement of the UCC – but that’s it – just a space, he noted. There was no structure, no programming, no trained volunteers to listen to students and their concerns. It was an available room that served as a safe space where groups of students could gather to talk, Benac explained. But students didn’t really use it.

“We got to the point where we were having conversations about the program, and is the program effective? We turned to the idea that we didn’t have a program at all, and none of the things the Canadian Mental Health Association stipulates as best practices for peer support programs. It was a massive disservice to students,” he added.

With support from the Student Development Centre (SDC), the USC turned its eyes to a formal space that would house trained volunteers who would be able to offer a listening ear to students who felt they needed someone to talk to, affirmation and support, as well as a referral to a mental health professional, if needed.

“The Student Development Centre has been incredibly gracious and supportive. Our volunteer trainer, who helped us build the program from the ground up, is a psychotherapist with the SDC, and she’s bringing expertise that will make sure (our centre) conforms to national standards,” Benac said.

So, what can students expect from the new Peer Support Centre?

It will be a drop-in service – no calls or appointments needed. Students who need to talk to someone can expect a trained student volunteer to greet them, with no judgment. Regardless of the issue or source of stress, volunteers will be trained in that three-step process of active listening, affirming and referring.

“We want students to have someone that will sit and listen to anything they want to say, whether they’ve had a bad day, or they’ve self-identified as struggling. We’re not a professional counseling service – our volunteers are equipped to listen, affirm and get the student from Point A to Point B, if a professional service is best suited for their needs,” he said.

“We had no structure before, and a house without walls is not really a house at all. We’ve got that structure in place now, and we’re very proud of it,” he continued.

“The (centre) is for students who might not need to see a psychologist today or tomorrow, but definitely need support. There’s an incredibly high demand on campus for psychologists, psychotherapists, social workers and psychiatrists – and we want to alleviate some of the pressure on those units by offering another place students can go if they don’t feel like they need to seek professional support just yet.”

The new Peer Support Centre will be open 12-6 p.m. Monday-Friday. The USC will be paying close attention to peak hours and demand, and could adjust the operation schedule to better suit the needs of students, Benac noted.

The USC thanked Leslie Johnson, BScN’78, and Peter Johnson, HBA’74, MBA’75, LLB’78, along with their family, for recognizing the Peer Support Centre as a need on campus, and for stepping in with funding to support its establishment.

“We wouldn’t have had the capacity to do this, without them and we’re incredibly grateful for that support. We owe the entire distance we’ve come to the Johnson family,” Benac said.