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Harvard Peer Counseling Groups See Steady Influx of Students Since In-Person Return

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Harvard’s five undergraduate peer counseling groups have seen a steady influx of student visitors this semester after resuming full in-person operation.

The College’s peer counseling groups include Contact, ECHO, Indigo, Response, and Room 13, each of which have a different area of specialization. More than 130 students sought support from the groups between September and October — in-person or via phone call — per a Harvard University Health Services spokesperson.

This semester marks the first time since before the pandemic that all five peer counseling groups are “back up and running,” Counseling and Mental Health Services Chief Barbara Lewis said in an October interview with The Crimson.

“In August of this year, we had our first full training of all the peer counseling groups,” Lewis said. “Every peer counseling group is supervised by a CAMHS clinician, and they work under that clinician’s license.”

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In October, Harvard rolled out a new mental health initiative and announced new wellness service offerings. The University also highlighted the peer counseling groups as another available resource.

With their revival, some of the groups, including Room 13, have seen comparable attendance rates to pre-pandemic levels.

“Pre-pandemic, Room 13 was getting really busy," Lewis said. "I think they saw up to 200 students over the course of a year, which is a lot."

In comparison, Room 13 has supported more than 70 students so far this semester.

In addition to the five peer counseling groups that existed before the pandemic, two Harvard undergraduates launched a new group last spring called Harvard Undergraduate Peer Therapy. HUGPT practices interpersonal psychotherapy, or IPT, and students can get certified to become “facilitators” through the IPT Institute.

Eric H. Li ’23-’24, one of the founders of HUGPT, wrote in an emailed statement that the group is currently serving around 15 students through five facilitators.

“Typically, a group session starts with a check-in on how people are doing and then shifting into a more structured conversation about that week’s topic (ex: isolation or interpersonal dispute),” Li wrote. “Over the next 1.5 hours, people share their experiences, relate to others, provide/receive support from their peers, and discuss things they could try.”

One of the older peer counseling groups, Contact Peer Counseling, provides support for students with experiences surrounding mental health and LGBTQ+ issues. The group provides confidential, non-directive, and non-judgmental peer counseling, rather than psychotherapy, per Contact Co-Director Sofia S. Flynn ’25.

“We provide a space for people to talk about their experiences, thoughts, and emotions, but we are not trained therapists or clinicians, and therefore, we are not in the position of being able to give directive advice and tell people what they should or should not do,” Flynn said.

Heer Patel ’23, Contact co-director, said the group focuses on non-directive counseling to respond to the unique needs of LGBTQ+ students.

“Contact might be a little bit stricter about this than other peer counseling groups, but one of the reasons why we try to stick to being so non-directive and non-judgmental is because a lot of the drop-ins that come in are part of the LGBTQIA+ community and may have been told all their life how they should feel or what they should do,” Patel said. “We try to stay away from contributing to that.”

There are currently 15 students on the Contact team, per Flynn.

According to Flynn, Contact looks for peer counselors who are active listeners and practice compassion. All Contact peer counselors undergo a two-stage interview process and extensive training at the beginning of the semester.

Patel said working in peer counseling has been a rewarding experience.

“The act of being able to be a witness to someone's experience and make sure they don't have to do it alone — at least for me, coming out of the pandemic in a college that can sometimes feel really lonely — is incredibly important, and I'm really glad to be able to do it,” she said.

—Staff writer Vivian Zhao can be reached at vivian.zhao@thecrimson.com

—Staff writer Lucas J. Walsh can be reached at lucas.walsh@thecrimson.com

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