Interview with Adrienne Siu – peer supporter and coordinator

Peer support is a crucial part of welfare, both in college and at the wider university. Green Templeton College Student Peer Supporters are trained by the Oxford University Counselling Service, and are available to talk with you informally and confidentially about anything that is concerning you. We spoke to Adrienne Siu, a fourth year DPhil student in Cardiovascular Medicine, to hear more about the role of Peer Supporter.

Adrienne Siu Photo

What made you want to become a Peer Supporter?
I wanted to figure out if I wanted to train as a counsellor eventually, so to start with it was more of a testing of how it went. But you don’t have to have a particular interest in counselling. I think a lot of people do it because they realise their friends or peers may have issues and they want to be able to better deal with that.

I guess in the student community people do just spring things on you, or you can see a friend struggling?
Yes exactly, and you may not know how to offer help, or know what’s best? That’s what they deal with in the Peer Supporter training. I guess it’s about learning how to actively listen, and how to ask open questions, how to be with that person without placing your values on them or making judgments or assumptions. It’s really like offering a safe space for that person. Usually we don’t tend to give advice, though there may be some cases where you might offer something concrete but we try not to do that. We reflect back on what the person’s talking about and they have space to think about what they want to do next.

So what’s involved in the training?
I trained about two years ago, so it’s probably changed a bit now, but basically it’s a structured programme, and very experiential and hands-on. For example there’s a session on how to ask open-ended questions. You get workbooks and practise with other trainees and peers. Whatever you say stays in the room, so you get to really experience what it’s like for yourself. I made some really good friends through the training.

I think there were around 15 of us from different colleges, and also some Junior Deans. The sessions also covered topics like suicide and self-harm, and it was really helpful to discuss what you would do and how you would respond if someone disclosed that they were feeling suicidal or were self-harming. It is basically using the same skills, to continue to listen openly, validate that person’s feelings but this is potentially an area where you may have to breach confidentiality if you feel there is enough reason to think their life might be in danger.

You have to make that informed decision with them?
Yes, so figuring out the boundaries, working out what’s best for them and what they’d like to do to get more support. Usually you try to get their consent before breaching confidentiality, but there may be cases where you have to breach confidentiality without their consent.

So that’s potentially quite a challenging area for a Peer Supporter, and signposting to other sources of help could be useful?
Yes, it’s another thing I found from the training, I didn’t realise initially how much you would learn things about yourself. The whole self-awareness bit, that you can’t really help people if you haven’t been there yourself? The module on self-care is good. I think people usually sign up to be a Peer Supporter because they want to help others. But in the training they ask you to think about your own boundaries, and if you don’t think you can help or your help is going to be limited, you can be assertive about that. It was good to hear that from someone else because you can feel guilty about saying no. Especially in Oxford, where it can feel like you have to do everything! It can bleed through into your life generally.

The training is really human. It can feel quite clinical in an academic environment, where everyone seems to do everything and there isn’t really that space to be vulnerable – but we need to be vulnerable to be able to openly discuss these issues and we don’t tend to do that so much in an academic environment. Also, although it’s great that more people are aware of the Counselling Service and going there, sometimes the first step of talking to a peer is really important to have.

What about supervision for Peer Supporters?
So during the term we have fortnightly supervision basically made up of peer supporters from different colleges who meet to discuss issues that have come up, and there’s a trained counsellor who moderates. It’s nice, it’s like support for people giving support.

The size varies but generally the expectation after training is that peer supporters have to go to supervision for two terms and then when they have more experience it can be more intermittent. I still try to go regularly but recently with completing my thesis I haven’t been going so often.

What about your co-ordinator role?
At Green Templeton we’ve run some Peer Support events – for example, advertising specific office drop-in hours. I guess though not that many have used the office hours, it’s nice to have that time that everyone knows is regular, so they have the option in the back of their mind if they need it.

The other event we’ve organised was a wine and chocolate tasting in the Stables Bar, where you can come to meet the Peer Supporters over food and drink. It was very successful. One of my friends did a quiz on trying to figure out what flavour you’re tasting. I guess people find it enjoyable, just to come for food and chat. They don’t necessarily have to talk about their problems generally but it’s just so they know who we are and where to come to.

What’s a typical week like for a Peer supporter?
I haven’t actually been contacted formally that much except once at a drop-in session. That was probably the most formal setting it has come up in but it has had more of an impact on my personal relationships and interactions with people in informal settings. For example if you hear something’s going on in college, you can just think, I can use these skills or just sit back a bit and listen to them because that’s what they need right now. So I guess because it’s not as formal, it’s hard to measure the impact. But from talking to other Peer supporters, they’ve really enjoyed the training and benefitted for this programme.

So it can be hard to measure the impact?
Exactly. People don’t tend to come back and say, ‘it worked!’. You tend to wonder if that thing you said was right. It’s more like the concept is: this is this person’s space, and this is my space and reflecting on what they are actually telling me. I like to think about interactions, what it means to say something a certain way and the issues that are brought up. I think the training gives you better skills to just be with the person if they really need you to be there.

Is there anything people should be aware of in the application process?
You now apply via an online form. The lead counsellor who runs the programme gets the applications, and also our Academic Administrator and the Junior Deans and I look at the applications. It’s a joint review. It sounds formal but it’s not that formal really. The questions they ask are common-sense.

Do you get training from the University counselling service?
Yes, it’s delivered by the head of the programme and other counsellors. Departments as well as colleges are now getting involved, for example the Dept of Population Health and medical students.

And there are also Peer Supporters for specific groups, eg Rainbow, Peers of Colour?
Yes, we have this as well. They get the same training but they get separate supervision.

What’s the biggest challenge in being a Peer Supporter?
The training is maybe more emotionally challenging than you might expect. It’s very different using your feeling brain to your thinking brain. It’s a different way of processing I guess. It’s nice to be in a safe environment with other Peer Supporters in training. It might not be what you expect.
The most enjoyable part is getting to know other trainees, knowing I now have these skills I can tap into if I find myself with a person in a difficult situation. It’s given me confidence.

What are the most important skills in being a Peer supporter?
I’d say openness, self-awareness, having a non-judgmental attitude, being approachable.

Anything else it would be important to know?
I guess you don’t need an interest in counselling to do it. (I’m still figuring out if that’s something I’d like to do in the future). But there are benefits for myself I didn’t anticipate, for example new friendships, and the training.

Adrienne is available by email for peer support. You can also find out more about the Green Templeton Peer Supporters here, and find further college health and welfare information here.