Two students at the College launched a peer therapy group last semester that employs empirically validated psychotherapy techniques focusing on interpersonal relationships to combat anxiety and depression.
Harvard Undergraduate Peer Therapy, led by Suhaas M. Bhat ’23-’24 and Eric H. Li ’23-’24, uses a therapy method called interpersonal psychotherapy, or IPT, to provide small groups of six to eight students with support during an eight to 10-week program.
Bhat and Li say they were motivated to act based on the “mental health crisis on campus” and the dearth of mental health professionals in the greater Boston area. They finished their pilot group last semester and are launching their third group in the next couple of weeks.
“Therapy has, in the last decade or so, attained a dizzying height of cultural importance,” Bhat said. “Now when people are struggling, the number one advice is go to therapy. I don't think it was like that 20 years ago.”
Bhat and Li said that one of the goals of their program was to increase accessibility to therapy by making it more responsive and affordable.
“I've been trying to schedule an appointment [with a private mental health provider] lately. It's so incredibly expensive and especially during the pandemic now,” Bhat said. “Demand is spiking and supply is frozen.”
The application process for HUGPT consists of a brief consultation to see if IPT suits a given student’s needs.
Harvard's Counseling and Mental Health Services advises the group and agreed to greenlight the program after Bhat and Li presented the IPT model to them.
“What IPT is ultimately interested in writing is helping you create strong, healthy relationships and communicate your emotions healthily in those relationships,” Bhat said.
Scott Stuart, the director of the IPT Institute which certifies facilitators of IPT, said the Institute has trained more than 6,000 facilitators since its founding, but Bhat and Li are the first undergraduate students to be certified.
“We have had people from university counseling services who are on staff come to training so that's not unusual at all,” Stuart said. “This is the first time, to my knowledge, that there are undergrad students who are doing it on the college campus.”
“While many modes of therapy require a therapist with years of subject area expertise, the beauty of IPT-G is that the group does the real therapy — the facilitator simply guides the process,” the HUGPT website reads. “Each and every person has spent many years navigating intricate and complex relationships, and our goal as facilitators is to allow members of the group to lead each other, learning and growing as they face challenges together.”
An average session consists of a brief initial group check-in, followed by the main focus of the session, which will vary from week to week, Li said. For instance, one week might focus on role transitions and students’ experience of entering college life. The goal of the session would be to structure their understanding of themselves and their relationships.
Harvard already offers several peer counseling programs, including Contact, ECHO, and Room 13, among others. However, there are significant differences between peer counseling services and IPT, per Stuart.
“Generally speaking, peer counseling is more supportive,” Stuart said. “Peer counselors generally are not trained in specific kinds of evidence-based practices for depression or anxiety.”
“For instance, peer counseling might work very well if somebody is having difficulty with loneliness or a sense of isolation,” Stuart added. “But if somebody has a diagnosis of depression, for example, or a diagnosis of panic disorder, peer counseling is probably not going to be sufficient to treat that.”
Stuart said that IPT is not exclusively reserved for people with diagnosed mental illnesses and those who are potentially headed toward a diagnosis can benefit from treatment as well. For that reason, he said HUGPT fills a demand for a preventive intervention for students at risk for depression or anxiety at Harvard.
“I think it's got tremendous potential for reaching a lot of people who really need preventive services,” Stuart said.
—Staff writer Vivian Zhao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Lucas J. Walsh can be reached at email@example.com.