On an unseasonably beautiful sunny afternoon yesterday, seven student volunteers spent four hours in a University of Pennsylvania conference room learning how to help their peers - maybe save their lives.

The students were there for training on how to listen to someone who has a problem, how to recognize when the problem is an emergency, and how to connect someone with counseling and campus support groups.

They were becoming part of the Healthy Living Task Force, a Penn student group aimed at creating a cadre of frontline peers who can listen to and help their friends at a time when more students are reaching out for help.

Mirroring national trends, the percentage of students seeking counseling service at Penn's center has risen in the last decade from about 9.5 percent to more than 11 percent.

One topic on yesterday's agenda: how to respond to someone who expresses a suicidal thought.

"Here's the bottom line: If you have any doubts . . . you simply call 911, even over their objection or even behind their back," advised psychiatrist Henry R. Bleier, on staff at the nearby Veterans Administration Medical Center. "Saving their life trumps preserving your relationship with them."

Students who have belonged to the task force for several years say their participation has proved vital in interaction with peers.

"Penn is a pressure cooker," said Sarah Schachet, 21, a junior actuarial-science major from Chicago. "I see a lot of my friends and they don't really have the coping skills to handle it."

Drawing on her training, which she got as a freshman, she directed a close friend to the counseling center for assistance after her best friend back home died.

Vivian Huang, 22, a senior from Cupertino, Calif., majoring in nursing and health-care management, has put the training she got as a freshman to good use: once walking a person in crisis to the university's lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender office, and on another occasion directing a grief-stricken friend to the counseling center after her grandfather died.

On Saturday night, Huang drew on her skills to talk to a friend despondent over a girlfriend.

"It's important for students to be able to listen to each other," Huang said.

Experts agree.

"For us, these are the eyes and ears of what's going on out there," said William Alexander, Penn's counseling and psychological director.

Alexander said a growing number of student groups are aimed at helping peers.

Active Minds, started by a Penn graduate, focuses on reducing the stigma of mental illness.

"Rap line" is a student-staffed hotline to which peers can call in for help.

Students of Ailing Mothers & Fathers is a peer support group for those grieving the death or illness of a loved one. It was founded by David Fajgenbaum when he was an undergraduate at Georgetown University and his mother was dying of brain cancer. Now a second-year medical student at Penn, he started the group here last fall.

"I felt incredibly alone on campus when my mother was dying," said Fajgenbaum, of Raleigh, N.C. Later he learned others were facing similar situations in isolation.

"What peer-led groups do is provide a forum for students to talk," he said.

Health-care professionals and Healthy Living staffers emphasize that the student helpers are not professional counselors and receive no certificates for the training.

"It's really life skills, another layer of sensitivity," said Rabbi Ephraim Levin, an associate with Penn's chaplain office and the task force director.

Kelly Miskill, 26, who is in the accelerated nursing graduate program, came to learn how to help peers cope in the very stressful program.

"I have a lot of friends who come to me with problems, and it helps to know the best way to handle them," said Rebecca Asher, 19, a psychology major from Paoli, who also attended.

The task force stems from the Lubavitch House, a Jewish-based campus organization. The house began to host seminars on mental-health issues, and Healthy Living, which is nondenominational, grew from it.

About 120 students have been trained since 2005, one-half to two-thirds of whom are still on campus, many of them participating in ongoing discussion groups.

Melissa Buzzi, 25, a second-year social-work graduate student, said her time as a resident-hall assistant at Boston College emphasized for her the importance of having students trained to help peers.

Buzzi, the task force's program coordinator, saw students with eating disorders, one who was raped and suicidal, another with a drinking problem vomiting blood, two whose fathers died, and others with relationship issues.

"The first line of defense are students," she said. "A lot of times the R.A. [resident assistant] doesn't have the same relationship with a student as a peer."

Also on the Healthy Living staff is Melissa Hopely, 22, a 2009 graduate of Immaculata University, who speaks publicly about her struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder and depression. She started an Active Minds chapter at Immaculata to fight stigma.

"If I had one friend who had stayed with me the whole time I was struggling," she said, "I wouldn't have ended up wanting to commit suicide."

More Information

For information on the Healthy Living Task Force, e-mail Lchaim@dolphin.upenn.edu.

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Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.