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'Friend 2 Friend' increases students' awareness of how to help struggling peers

When students feel sad, anxious or depressed, they are far more likely to turn to peers than to mental health professionals for help, research shows. However, friends are often unsure how to help, which triggered the development of Cornell's "Notice and Respond: Friend 2 Friend" workshop. It was designed to help students to consider their role in Cornell's support network and ways they might respond when peers show signs of distress.

The program's purpose is "to give students an idea of what a conversation with someone who's really upset or struggling might look like, and to open up discussion on effective response options," said Janis Talbot, a health educator at Cornell's Gannett Health Services and coordinator of the program.

The centerpiece of the Friend 2 Friend training workshop is a 15-minute filmed scenario that features "Ryan," a distressed Cornell undergraduate, and his interactions with his roommate and two friends. After viewing the film, students discuss their reactions, exploring challenges and discomfort they might face when talking to friends in distress, and ways to overcome those challenges and discomfort. Students also receive information about campus resources, so they know where to direct friends for support.

"Our discussion helps students appreciate a wide range of perspectives on mental health and how these can shape our responses when someone is struggling," said Talbot.

"My first reaction was, 'This will never happen to me.' I thought my friends were too normal, too held-together, to ever fall into depression," said Anil Singhal, a chemical engineering junior and peer adviser who went through the Friend 2 Friend training.

"Then as you watch more and more of the presentation, you start to realize that this is more applicable than just to friends suffering from severe depression. Being willing to ask a friend if he/she is doing all right just by noticing they are not themselves can really help. ... They realize that you are willing to listen to them and that you care about them," said Singhal.

Responses to the Friend 2 Friend program have been overwhelmingly positive, said Talbot. More than 2,500 Cornell students have gone through the program, primarily first-year engineering students and upper-class undergraduates with leadership roles at Cornell.

"I know that Cornell is a stressful place to be a student, and many people don't come to college with the right set of coping skills for the amount of stress that they'll end up feeling at some point. ... With this training, students will be better equipped if they notice unusual behavior from their peers," said Melanie Herman '12, a resident assistant who also went through the program.

"At Cornell it is a sign of intelligence when someone knows how and when to ask for help," said Talbot, emphasizing that every student passing through Cornell will experience challenges and struggles at some point.

"The earlier you can reach out for some support, the more quickly you can recover and get back on track," said Talbot.

Some students may feel they don't have the time to help peers in distress, noted Talbot. "This program can show students a way to respond that doesn't result in them becoming the problem-solver. As a caring friend, "you can direct students to campus resources where they can learn about options that will work best for them," she said.

The program was funded in part by the family of William E. Wilson '62, who died in 2009.

"Wilson was a person who loved Cornell" and wanted other students to experience the "best side" of the university, said Talbot.

More information on the Friend 2 Friend program can be found at the Gannett Health Services website.

Graduate student Joyanna Gilmour is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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