Veronica Delgado has a message for students struggling with mental health: They’re not alone.
It’s a tangible message now that Delgado, a senior studying social work at New Mexico State University, is part of a pilot program at NMSU that aims to train students to become mental health ambassadors who can build a network of peer-to-peer support across the campus community.
The new program, funded by a one-year, $50,000 grant from the New Mexico Higher Education Department, works with students like Delgado to educate them on mental health first aid, suicide prevention, public health campaigning and researching mental health issues.
“A lot of students don’t know how to get help, so I want to educate my peers who may be going through difficult times and let them know it’s OK not to be OK, and it’s OK to ask for help,” Delgado said. “You’re not alone – we’re here to help.”
The program, called “No Mind Suffering Unheard,” launched this fall as a collaboration between the College of Health, Education and Social Transformation’s Department of Public Health Sciences, the Aggie Health and Wellness Center, the Department of Student Life and the Vice Chancellor’s Office.
“Our project is about creating a culture of mental health promotion on campus,” said Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health sciences professor at NMSU. “Research shows many professors and students don’t know how to deal with someone in crisis – and that’s why we wanted to intervene. We decided it would be helpful to train students as peer mental health advocates who can help other students.”
More than 100 students applied to the program, Khubchandani said, but only about half were selected to participate, including Delgado, a non-traditional student pursing her first college degree.
She and other students admitted into the program began attending weekly three-hour training workshops in October and will continue to do so through the end of the fall semester. After the training sessions conclude in the coming weeks, students will receive certificates of completion and begin outreach events on campus. They will also receive two $250 stipends for the fall 2022 and spring 2023 semesters.
“This fall semester, we’re concentrating on training,” said Amanda Blair, interim director of the Aggie Health and Wellness Center. “We want to ensure that these peer advocates know how to listen to people and know how to communicate and navigate difficult conversations.”
The students’ first outreach event – “Stress Busters” – will take place in December, and they will begin targeted mental health education programs next spring for various departments and organizations across NMSU’s Las Cruces campus, Blair said.
The goal of the project, Khubchandani said, is to decentralize mental health care and destigmatize mental health issues by educating community members – in this case students – who regularly interact with one another.
“In mental health-related research with high school students who report depression and anxiety as major problems, we’ve seen that students will first go to their peers for support, and then they will go to school authorities or parents,” he said. “This is true for college students as well. Many times, they will not tell their professors or other adults about their mental health problems, and because of that, their peers play a big role. Through our program, we hope more and more students who need help will be able to communicate with their peers.”
The program is one of several NMSU initiatives that promote mental health resources.
In September 2021, the Department of Student Life launched you.nmsu.edu, an on-demand mental health resources portal for students, staff and faculty across the NMSU system. Bruce Vandevender, director of Student Assistance Services, said the free and confidential portal supports student and staff success through mental and physical health, academic and career, and purpose, community and social connections.
Blair said the Aggie Health and Wellness Center also offers a host of services for students and staff in crisis, including counseling.
“We are at the forefront, and NMSU is doing pioneering work across the nation,” Khubchandani said. “This is a fitting response to the pandemic-related mental health crises we faced in the past two years.”
Since interest in the new peer advocate project surpassed expectations, Blair she said she’d like to see NMSU develop a program that continually trains students as mental health ambassadors.
“We’re hoping with further momentum and future funding, we’ll be able to explore being more inclusive and not turn away any students interested in helping their peers,” she said.
Delgado believes the program will have a lasting, positive impact on students.
“The more we’re able to raise awareness on issues like depression, anxiety and suicide,” she said, “the more we’ll be able to help students and make them understand all the resources to support them.”