Peer listeners prepare to lend an ear

By: Melissa Schneider / Published: Jul 15,  2010

Everyone needs someone to talk to from time to time.

For people dealing with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, having friends to talk to about day-to-day stresses can lead them toward healing and coping.

About 90 Gulf Coast residents attended two training sessions July 14 and 15 to become volunteer peer listeners in a program coordinated by the Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Programs, U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative Extension, Auburn University Marine Center, the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Gulf of Mexico Regional Collaboration Team, NOAA Gulf Coast Services Center and Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Peer listeners learned how to make people feel at ease and talk about what they are feeling. They also learned characteristics of a good listener. Other topics included communications skills, managing anger, identifying depression and assessing suicide risk. They were encouraged to use the skills to bloom where they are planted and work with friends, family, co-workers and neighbors.

“Peer listening is effective because many people who need help may be reluctant to seek out mental health professionals after a technological disaster,” said LaDon Swann, director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. “This training gives people skills to help them create a social safety net in their communities.”

Sociologist Steven Picou of the University of South Alabama, who implemented the peer listener training in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and has performed extensive research on communities and disasters, conducted the training.

During the four-hour training sessions, Picou told volunteers to use attentive silence to listen to people who are expressing anger, guilt or frustration over the oil spill. He said a good peer listener is not judgmental and does not try to change peoples’ paths; peer listeners simply commit to accompanying others on their journeys. He offered many real-life examples from his research and experiences regarding the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

“I think this is a great opportunity for people to get involved,” said Kay Baggett, a retired biology teacher from Ocean Springs, Miss., who attended a training session at The University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs. “It made me aware of people who really do have concerns (about the oil spill).”

A training session also was held at the Bayou La Batre Community Center in Bayou La Batre, Ala. A third training session is planned for July 23 in Gulf Shores, Ala. Other trainings are scheduled for July 28 and July 29 in Baton Rouge, and other sessions will be planned in Florida.

About 175 people have said they would like to become peer listeners, and mental health and disaster relief organizations have expressed interest in partnering and coordinating efforts to reach more people in the Gulf of Mexico region.

The groups coordinating the peer listening program are working to secure funding to train hundreds of peer listeners in the region.

To show your interest in attending a future training session, go to


comments powered by Disqus