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September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

Letters

Yes, Flowers

No, no, no! Daniel Keyes did not write No Flowers for Algernon. He wrote Flowers for Algernon. I thought the article "No Flowers for Algernon" (Voices, May 1998) was terrific, but I have loved the book for many years and it hurts to see it cited incorrectly.
—Eugenia Potter, National Association of Secondary School Principals, Reston, Virginia

Peer Suicide Prevention Programs

We read with interest Andrew S. Latham's "Peer Counseling: Proceed with Caution" (Research Link, Oct. 1997), which is largely based on a 1996 article by Lewis and Lewis in Journal of Counseling and Development. We disagree with all three authors when they emphasize that peer programs can be harmful, even lethal, and may increase the risk of suicide. In fact, Lewis and Lewis reported (1) lower suicide rates in programs supervised by trained professional counselors versus those supervised by noncounselors and (2) a lower suicide rate in peer programs supervised by counselors than the national figures.
The Lewis and Lewis study raises three concerns. First, using peers for in-depth suicide prevention counseling is ill-advised and inappropriate. Instead, their role might be to offer social support, advice, a "listening ear," or education. Second, noncounselors are ill equipped to function as supervisors for suicide prevention programs. They are not trained as clinicians, who often complete several hundred internship hours in suicide prevention. We believe that using peers and noncounselors is a design flaw that in itself led to the failures of the programs. Third, the results of the Lewis and Lewis study are not generalizable, a limitation acknowledged by the authors. Lewis and Lewis cannot be considered unbiased estimators for the whole population.
Rather than unfairly malign peer helping programs, we want to emphasize operating programs according to the standards of the National Peer Helpers Association. Well-planned, well-conducted, and well-supervised peer helping programs can have beneficial, even lifesaving, outcomes.
—David R. Black, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana; Nancy Tobler, Tobler Research Associates, Sand Lake, New York; John P. Sciacca, Northern Arizona University. Flagstaff, Arizona; and Daniel C. Coster, Utah State University. Logan, Utah

A Response to Black, Tobler, Sciacca, and Coster

Black, Tobler, Sciacca, and Coster raise three issues with our study on which Andrew Latham based his article "Peer Counseling: Proceed with Caution" (Research Link, Oct. 1997). First, they contend that it is inappropriate to enlist peer helpers in a counseling role that addresses life-threatening issues. We heartily agree and know of no com-pelling reason that could justify making adolescents feel responsible for the lives of other students. But programs do exist that take considerable risk by assigning such a role to peer helpers.
Second, Black and colleagues raise concerns about program supervision. We all agree on the need for highly trained and competent supervisors. Although we found an association between suicide rate and the professional counseling status of the program supervisors, we did not and would not conclude from our data that noncounselor-supervised programs cause suicide. The observed relationship is complicated and needs further study.
The third issue concerns our methodology and the generalizability of our findings. Our investigation is an as-yet unreplicated survey that reports after-the-fact findings and presents important descriptive data. Although our data are not perfect, our sampling strategy and rate of return are adequate to provide descriptive information. Our data are the best available information on the way peer helping programs are implemented and on the suicide rates observed under different conditions.
—Arleen C. Lewis and Max W. Lewis, Department of Psychology, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington.

Author's Reply

My intent was to emphasize that care must be taken in designing and implementing peer counseling programs. In reviewing several studies, I found that well-constructed and well-monitored programs often have impressive results when peer counselors are carefully selected, thoroughly trained, and closely monitored. Such programs show the powerful potential of peer counseling.
My major point is that we must carefully think about the goals we set for peer counseling programs and about our methods for achieving them. In this I completely agree with the correspondents.
—Andrew S. Latham, Educational Testing Service, Princeton, New Jersey.

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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