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Training teaches ASU students how to be caring, supportive friends

Devils 4 Devils helps peers to spot distress, ask questions and offer comfort

April 18, 2018

Stress is a natural state for college students, and talking it out with friends is a great way to cope. Over the past year, Arizona State University has been helping students learn how to become better listeners to their friends who need emotional support.

Devils 4 Devils is a unique kind of peer counseling that empowers students to confidently pay attention and react to students who are stressed or facing mental health issues. The peers learn practical skills like active listening and how to ask open-ended questions.

“The idea is that emotional well-being is all of our responsibilities. It’s not only the responsibility of the Counseling Center or the health centers,” said Aaron Krasnow, associate vice president of ASU Counseling Services and Health Services.

“People turn to each other all the time to get support. But we also recognize that sometimes we might feel unprepared to talk to friends about their emotional difficulties,” he said.

“How do you help the helpers?”

So Devils 4 Devils, which was launched about a year ago, offers four levels of training:

Video: A four-minute video on the ASU website explains the importance of emotional well-being in a college community and offers brief information about signs of distress and ways to help.

Video courtesy ASU Counseling

General helping skills: This two-hour training is open to any ASU student who is interested. Primary goals are to learn about mental health and signs of distress and to hone skills as a helper.

Leadership training: This two-and-a-half-hour session is open to student leaders in residence halls, student government, clubs, Greek life, athletics or other areas with a focus on mental health and signs of distress in individuals and in groups and ways to build and sustain emotionally healthy communities and teams.

Care Squad: A six-hour training for students who want an active role in mentoring and serving individuals and groups of students. After training, Care Squad members will provide direct service in the form of outreach training and events, drop-in support groups and workshops.

Over the past year, 612 students were trained in general helping skills, 56 student-leaders took leadership training and 73 students trained to become part of the Care Squad.

The sessions offer specific skills in how to ask someone how they’re doing in a way that creates the openness for response and how to communicate in an empathetic way.

“We also offer students ideas about what to do when you hear something that’s concerning or sad or scary. Because we all have those things in our life. And if I share my sadness with you, now you have to hold my sadness a little bit,” Krasnow said.

“And so it’s both how to ask and how to receive information. Because if you only teach someone how to ask, they’re underprepared for what to do with it.”

Krasnow said that sometimes students worry that a peer will share something that shows they’re really at risk.

“My answer is that they’re already talking to each other about their pain. But if they’re not, and someone shares that, thank goodness. Because that person can get help.

“What we don’t want is students to feel alone in their pain. What we don’t want is someone to be at risk and to think that there’s no one they can talk to.”

Preston Johnson, a graduate student at ASU, took the Care Squad training and found that students were happy to learn specific ways of responding.

“What are some ways to navigate those conversations without being charged with, ‘How do I fix this for them?’ ” he said.

“It was an in-depth look at how to be supportive rather than remediative.”

For example, when someone describes stress over an exam, don’t point out that that he or she should attend tutoring.

Advice comes from good intentions. “But the subtext can be, ‘I don’t want to experience that stress with you. I want you to be out of it,’" he said.

“An empathetic response takes vulnerability and effort. A simple response is, ‘Wow, it sounds like this class means a lot and you’re worried.’ It’s communicating, ‘It’s OK for you to feel this way in front of me.’ ”

Johnson said that Devils 4 Devils is about creating an environment where people feel supported in sharing their feelings.

“It builds on this philosophy that people in general can handle the things that come up in their own lives. What’s difficult is when you feel like, ‘I’m in this by myself.’"

Other universities offer peer counseling, but ASU is unique because the trained students are not part of Counseling Services and Devils 4 Devils is a university-wide wellness initiative, Krasnow said.

“There will never be enough professional counselors in the world for everybody who will be in pain, and nor should we think that all emotional pain should be dealt with by professional counselors,” he said. “We invest in professional counselors, and psychologists and social workers, we invest in peer-to-peer impact, we invest in online strategies and self-help, all to try and reach as many people as possible.”

Next, the individual colleges will have their own Devils 4 Devils.

“What’s the Devils 4 Devils engineering version? Or journalism version?” he said.

“By doing that we’ll adjust it even further because there will be college-culture components.”

Learn more about Devils 4 Devils and ASU Counseling Services

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