Effectiveness of One-Year Participation in School-Based Volunteer-Facilitated Peer Support Groups

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This study evaluated the effectiveness of one-year participation in a program of volunteer-facilitated peer support groups conducted in a southeast Texas high school. One hundred eighteen students who experienced emotional distress or behavioral problems voluntarily participated in weekly groups facilitated by adult volunteers who were not mental health professionals. Seventy-six participants anonymously assessed the program using an instrument developed to evaluate the group experience. Results indicated that the program was highly accepted by the students even though two-thirds had initially felt uncomfortable in the groups. There was significant improvement in the interpersonal, internal, and school domains. Two-thirds of the alcohol and substance users reported reducing their intake or abstaining. The beneficial effects reported by a majority of the participants indicate that schools opting to implement this early intervention program can look forward to encouraging results within one year.

Emotional distress and behavioral problems are common in high school students. Wassef et al. (Wassef, Ingham, Lassiter Collins, & Mason, 1995; Wassef, Lassiter Collins, Ingham, & Mason, 1995) have discussed the etiology of these phenomena and the obstacles related to the large-scale implementation of programs designed to assist students, as well as the difficulty of assessing their efficacy. This article presents the first-year results of the Student Assistance Program, which involves peer support groups. The areas in which improvement was found are highlighted.

METHOD

In the 1990-1991 academic year, the Student Assistance Program--an early intervention approach involving volunteer-facilitated peer support groups -- was launched in a southeast Texas high school. Fifteen hundred students were enrolled in the school: 51% male and 49% female; 69% Anglos, 17% Hispanics, 12% African Americans, and 2% Asians. Minorities were somewhat overrepresented in the school as compared with the community. English was the primary language in more than four-fifths of the students' homes. Spanish and Vietnamese were the languages for most of the remainder. Approximately 20% of the students received free or reduced-price lunches, reflecting the middle to low socioeconomic status of this population.

At the beginning of the school year, all students were provided with information about the support groups available for those who were experiencing emotional distress or behavioral problems. Students, family members, and school staff could also anonymously provide the names of those who, in their opinion, were having significant difficulties and might benefit from inclusion in the program. Participation in the groups, however, was strictly voluntary regardless of the type of referral or the perceived problem. A screening team, which included the school counselor, evaluated the applicants to confirm the need for help. Students who were experiencing problems that required immediate attention and those who needed hospitalization or out-of-school management were referred to outside resources (approximately 10% of the applicants).

The age range of the 118 participants was 14-19 years. They were assigned to small groups of 8-12 students based on their presenting problems. They met weekly on the school campus for 50 minutes during school hours. In the group meeting, the students discussed their concerns and stressors at home and school, as well as different coping strategies. Each group focused on one of the following topics: the consequences of substance use and how to remain abstinent; the effects of substance use by a relative (usually a parent) or a friend; parental divorce and remarriage; grief; school, family, relationships, and self-image; abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional); body image; the dual role of parent and student; depression; and minority issues. Each of the groups convened in the presence of two volunteer facilitators, who were not mental health professionals (a school staff member and an adult from the community). …