In the wake of Amanda Todd’s death, amidst a barrage of cyber-bullying stories in the media, student counsellors at Oak Bay High decided to harness the power of the Internet for a new peer support network.
Oak Bay Outreach is a web-based tool that allows students to log on to the Oak Bay High website and email anonymously with a trained peer counsellor. The entirely student-led project was soft-launched last March and has elated Allen York, the school’s head counsellor.
“It’s not another great idea started by adults,” said York, who plans to promote the service in the fall. “This is based on the simple truth that kids talk to kids.”
Once a student submits an email, peer counsellors on duty receive the message and a notification is sent to both York and Lorna Maximick, a second school counsellor. The peer counsellors have 48 hours to respond to the message, which may lead directly into a face-to-face session, or may stay a one-time online exchange.
For York’s senior peer counselling class, the tool provides one less barrier to supporting teens.
“There’s a huge stigma around coming to see a counsellor,” said Grade 11 student Haley Gurney. “They think, ‘They’ll judge me,’ or ‘I’m weak.’”
And while the computer is a comfortable means through which teens can access resources – such as adult counsellors and 911 services – it also offers its advantages to the students handling the requests for course credits.
“We don’t have the wealth of experience that Mr. York and Ms. Maximick have, we’re more comfortable using a computer and that way we have more time to think about what this person is saying and what it might mean to them,” said Sophie Underwood, also a Grade 11 student of the class. “It’s just as beneficial to us as it is to them.”
Students answering confidential messages have about 150 hours of instruction and supervised practise before handling the concerns. Prior to its move to Nanaimo, senior peer counsellors from the class had worked the phone lines at the Need Crisis Line.
Though few of the peer counsellors have had the opportunity to use Oak Bay Outreach to date, every one of the students in the class reports having used their counselling skills among friends.
“This is year 46 of working with teenagers and I’m proud to say that I’ve never seen a homegrown initiative like this in my life,” York added. “There are so many wonderful programs in this province to help teenagers who are struggling … But this is youth-generated. Youth helping youth right in their own back yard.”