MHPSS INITIATIVE – January 1 2023 Youth counsellors support their peers on mental health At the start of the school year, 14-year-old Sabita* from SOS Children’s Village Dhangadhi in Nepal struggled to keep up with the number of assignments and was stressed out about not getting good grades in her exams. “The pressure became overwhelming as I tried to adjust to the syllabus for Grade VII,” says Sabita “I was trying my best to understand the lessons taught in the classroom, but due to the study load and anxiety, at times, I couldn’t understand anything. This was frustrating. As a result, it all combined and took a toll on my mental health.” Sabita says when the going got really tough for her, she reached out to the counsellor at her village, who provided her with much-needed support. “That’s what I needed, just someone to listen to me talk about how I felt. When I shared my thoughts with my village counsellor, it felt like a torrent of pain was being unleashed,” Sabita shares. “The conversation with the counsellor helped me process my anxiety.” While Sabita sought support from a counsellor, she understood from the reaction of her peers that many children and adolescents in the village did not understand what kind of help counsellors could provide and felt uneasy in asking for help. “Children might be facing anxiety, stress, internet gaming addiction and discipline issues. Children and adolescents like me just need somebody to talk to but most of us are often hesitant to seek help due to the stigma around the issues related to mental health,” she says. Mental health issues among children and adolescents have continued to grow so much that mental health challenges have been identified as the biggest barriers to students thriving in school and colleges, both academically and socially. According to WHO, it is estimated that 1 in 7 (14%) children and young people from the age of 10 to19 years old experience mental health conditions globally, yet these remain largely unrecognized and untreated. SOS Children’s Villages Nepal is prioritizing mental health by carrying out various awareness activities under its Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) programme. However, it is still a challenge to break through cultural inhibitions in admitting emotional vulnerability. Keeping this in mind, SOS Children’s Villages Nepal has started focusing on how adolescents and young people can help one another through peer counselling. Peer counselling is a support process where peer counsellors help their contemporaries to overcome mental challenges. Considering the benefits of the peer counselling programmes, SOS Children’s Villages Nepal, for the first time, conducted four-day long peer counselling training in March 2022, where a total of 40 adolescents and young people from 10 Children’s Villages and Youth Care Programmes participated. In the programme, the adolescents and young people were trained to become peer counsellors with skills in active and empathetic listening and in guiding their peers through emotions by building trust in the process of identifying the problems. Anisha Aryal, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) focal person at SOS Children’s Villages Nepal, says that the goal of the peer counselling program is not to treat serious issues but to provide community support that could prevent further escalation of poor mental health. “In the training, peer counsellors are taught that their job is not to solve problems but to help their peers identify the problems and possible solutions on their own. At the same time, their role is to listen by being fully engaged, with empathy and without judgement. Often this is enough to help,” Aryal shares. Peer counsellors have been trained to immediately pass on the severe cases they might encounter during the counselling sessions to the village counsellors, who are available around the clock to back up the peer counsellors. “Counselling sessions are confidential between the peers except if someone expresses serious mental health issues that may result in self-harm. In that case, the peer counsellors have to report this information to the Village Counsellor and/or Village Director,” says Aryal. Creating awareness around mental health and peer counselling in the village After receiving peer counselling training in March, Sabita has been one of the active peer counsellors. Sabita and her fellow peer counsellor Ramesh* have established a ‘Brother Sister Care Support Group’ consisting of 12 members. “As of now, we have already provided workshops to 10 support group members where we shared all the knowledge and skills we learned during our peer counselling training,” says Ramesh. “With the help of Village Counsellors, we are in the process of developing an action plan where we will list out mental health awareness activities that will be carried out.” Like Sabita and Ramesh, Rachana* from SOS Children’s Village Sanothimi in Nepal, who also participated in the peer counselling training, is also preparing action plans as a peer counsellor in her village. According to Rachana, one of the mental health awareness activities will focus on addressing the stigma surrounding mental illness and seeking psychosocial support. “We aim to increase knowledge of mental health issues in the village so that we will be able to address the stigma around mental illness because perceived stigma is affecting children and teenagers, causing them to seek counselling at much lower rates.” *Names changed to protect the privacy of the children.