#YOUthTalk  |  Building Personal Resilience

My Experience as a Peer Helper in SMU


8 January 2021  |   7 min read

I am Ivy and I was a Peer Helper for three years when I was an undergraduate student majoring in Economics at Singapore Management University (SMU). Out of a desire to contribute to society and feel a sense of belonging, I joined SMU Peer Helpers in 2013.

SMU Peer helpers are full-time undergraduate students selected and trained to support the work of professional counsellors at the Mrs. Wong Kwok Leong Student Wellness Centre. While we are not professional counsellors, we extend the reach of the Wellness Centre by providing a listening ear and emotional support to students in times of need. Regardless of courses/majors, all undergraduates enrolled in SMU are welcome to apply to be a peer helper.

What I Do as a Peer Helper

As a bridge between the Wellness Centre and the SMU student community, I play a vital role in looking out for mentally distressed students and referring them to qualified counsellors for professional help and support. As such, distressed students would be quickly identified and given the appropriate support and care quickly.

During my time as a peer helper, I met many like-minded individuals who were as passionate as me in advocating for mental health and supporting my peers. The annual Mental Health Awareness on World Mental Health Day is one of the campus events we carried out to raise awareness of and create a better understanding of mental health and wellbeing.

To ensure that I am well-trained and equipped to help my peers, I completed an introductory 6-week Peer Helper Associate (PHA) Programme by the Centre and dedicated time to attend 13 weekly two-hour long training sessions per academic term. In the training sessions guided by the Centre’s counsellors and external trainers from Silver Ribbon and SOS, I learnt more about:

  • Mental Health First Aid.

    An understanding of Mental Health related issues, facts and resources.

  • Crisis Management.

    Recognising symptoms of distress, anxiety and depression. Responding and referral of students in distress to professional help.

  • Self-Awareness.

    Awareness of own strength and weakness, emotions and values

  • Self-Care.

    Being mindful of PIES wellness (Physical, Intellectual, Emotional and Social)
    Physical – Adequate sleep and rest, healthy diet, regular exercise
    Intellectual – Time management, critical thinking and analysis skills. Seeking resources, access and avenues.
    Emotional – Building resilience, stress management, self-care and relaxation practices
    Social – Developing communication skills, building healthy and meaningful relationships, practicing self-care, conflict management, coping strategies and creating a support system.

The training I received has made me ready and confident to support others, and be a better friend to my peers.

I believe that by continuing to learn to love and care for yourself, only then will you have the capacity to extend the same love and care to others — love and care that could make one’s day or even save a life.

As an only child, I used to struggle with low self-esteem. I felt the pressure to perform and live up to others’ expectations. I overcommit due to my reluctance to reject others. This led me to experience burnout frequently.

In my training to be a peer helper, I learnt how to cope with stress better through self-awareness and self-care. I am now better able to identify the root cause of my stress (eg. whether my lack of energy is physical, mental or emotional in nature) and take the necessary steps to rejuvenate and refresh myself.

I have also learnt to say no and to prioritise my mental health. Whenever I am tasked to take on a new commitment, I leverage on my confrontational skills to assess whether it conflicts with my values and schedule, and if I possess the capability and time to do it. My self-esteem increased as I am better able to withhold judgement, recognise and accept my strengths and weaknesses.

Prior to peer helping, I was admittedly more narrow-minded and would tunnel into irrational and negative thinking patterns. What helped me counter that was the knowledge on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) I gained during my peer helping experience.

CBT comprises of a range of techniques and approaches that address thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. In peer helping, we often ask questions to understand the linkage among the three dimensions. This allows peer helpers to respond with empathy and help others explore, reflect and rationalise the situation clearly. Being more aware of my own thought patterns allows me to be more positive and come up with alternative solutions to problems.

My full-time job as a Planner requires me to deal with public feedback and queries. When a new policy was implemented, I received a call from a customer who expressed his anger and disappointment. Instead of giving in to my instinctual tendency to defend the policy, I practised active listening, a skill I picked up in peer helping.

Active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding and helps to build relationships. It allows the listener to understand the viewpoint of the speaker better and to respond appropriately with empathy.

As part of active listening, I asked questions to develop suggestions with the customer and explored how the policy could work to his advantage. By asking questions, I ensure what is said is understood and interpreted correctly. This allows the speaker (the customer) to feel validated, supported and engaged in the conversation.

It was a heartening experience when he thanked me for listening to him.

Beyond the skills gained from peer helping that benefited my life, my fulfilling experience as a peer helper inspired me to pursue a Master’s degree in Counselling at Monash University. As part of the academic requirements, I now serve as a practicum Counsellor at SMU.

Be it peer helping or receiving peer support, it can help you see things from a fresh perspective and to help you better cope with life. My hope is for others to also experience the same joy from helping others.

As announced in Parliament on 4 March 2020, all schools will have a peer support network by 2022. If you are interested in peer helping, do look out for similar peer support programmes in your school. Campus Psy also offers peer support for youths where you can gain peer helping skills to support other youths in distress.

A recount of Ivy’s experience with her consent by Dr. Ada Chung, Steven Ng and Mylene Lee.

Dr Ada Chung is the Head of Mrs Wong Kwok Leong Student Wellness Centre (MWKLSWC) in Singapore Management University (SMU). Steven Ng and Mylene Lee are counsellors at MWKLSWC in SMU.

About Mrs Wong Kwok Leong Student Wellness Centre:

The Mrs Wong Kwok Leong Student Wellness Centre puts students in touch with professionals offering counselling and other support services and programmes that promote intellectual and emotional wellbeing.

Images by Shutterstock and Freepik.