Since its inception at Worcester Polytechnic Institute seven years ago, the Student Support Network program (SSN) has made its way to numerous college campuses throughout the country, Amherst included.
The Counseling Center created the Mental Health Task Force in 2010. Under the Task Force, students, faculty and staff gathered under focus groups to highlight different initiatives for on-campus mental health reforms. This resulted in a written proposal to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for a suicide prevention grant. SSN was included in the proposal to address basic needs expressed by the aforementioned focus groups.
Essentially, SSN consists of seven sessions, each one hour and fifteen minutes long. Through an interactive group setting, participating students learn active listening skills, the signs of suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, eating disorders, depression and anxiety, and ways to support their peers by connecting them with available on-campus resources.
In order to be part of the SSN network, students must attend all sessions. There is no obligation beyond this.
“We only ask that our graduates utilize what they’ve learned when a friend comes to them for help,” said Mental Health Educator and SSN Director Jessica Gifford. “In terms of an SSN network, there is an SSN listserv, where graduates are notified of additional opportunities, such as participating in the Wellness Fair, a pizza party or other programs related to mental health.”
The first SSN session was offered last fall. Additional trainings were executed during interterm and the spring. A total of four student groups have been trained.
Constance Holden ’15 attended last year’s interterm SSN session. She firmly believes in the effectiveness of the program.
“I now look at mental health issues in a new light. I’m more aware of ‘silent struggles’ and a ‘red flag’ goes up in my head whenever I hear an acquaintance or a friend say something along the lines of ‘I’m going to kill myself because of all this work’ or ‘She’s so crazy’ or ‘That’s so retarded.’ Mental issues are something that even the sufferer may not be aware of. I handle mental issues now from a more empathetic and holistic approach, gathering information and referring students to resources when necessary,” Holden said. “I follow a process of empathy to action as opposed to immediately acting. Empathy is the key. Mental health issues are often like puzzles and those suffering from it disguise them well. I’m more aware of signs of depression, stress and eating disorders and much more knowledgeable about how common they are on this campus.”
Gifford confirms similar responses from other SSN graduates.
“The feedback from students who have participated in the program has been incredibly positive overall. We also have data from conducting pre- and post-assessments that show students report a significant increase in knowledge, comfort and ability in responding to mental health concerns. We believe that the more students trained, the greater the ripple effect in the community,” Gifford said.
Currently, there are two SSN trainings underway. Subsequent SSN trainings are projected to occur during interterm and spring.
Victor Ortiz ’17 is one of the participants of this semester’s SSN sessions.
“I’ve only been in the SSN program for a few weeks, but I already feel myself becoming more educated about mental health issues, especially those prevalent on campus,” Ortiz said. “As a first-year student, I see a lot of my peers struggling with the stress of college life for the first time. I can better help them and myself by implementing one of the many things I learn in SSN, namely, mechanisms to help cope with stress.”
In terms of further development for the SSN program, Gifford would like to implement an adjoining program called “Project Connect.”
“Students would engage in activities and initiatives designed to ameliorate isolation and enhance belonging, connectedness and community. For example, students might share stories of how they have ‘connected’ at Amherst, all of which would be posted on our Wellness Facebook page,” Gifford said.
Further details about “Project Connect” are pending.
Holden endorsed the SSN program.
“I wholeheartedly recommend it! Its purpose isn’t to become mental health evangelicals but really just to foster better relationships with friends and peers by being able to recognize mental health issues. You can become a better friend through SSN because you can recognize dangerous indicators that you otherwise may not have picked up on,” Holden said.
To become involved with SSN, students need only contact Gifford at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 413-542-5637.