High School Program Teaches Students How to Identify and Help With Mental Distress

A program offered at a Virginia high school helps students reach out by teaching them to identify markers of emotional or mental distress and what to do when they see the signs.

“It's okay to say that you're dealing with something,” Annie Przypyscny said about the club Sources of Strength at McLean High School. “It's no different than saying I have diabetes or high blood pressure. It's just another thing that you deal with. I think everybody is trying to work here on breaking that stigma through these clubs and through just talking about it. I know they do mental health training for freshman.”

“The idea is that instead of talking about suicide prevention in terms of trauma or crisis, we talk about it in terms of strength and protective factors, and we use you all as our peer leaders,” said Sources of Strength trainer Bobby Donahoe.

On a rare Friday off this fall, students participated in a class, which started with icebreakers and positive exercises so everyone could learn a little more about each other and themselves.

The subjects soon become more intense.

Donahoe asked the teenagers what stresses them and their friends out.

“Family, arguments, people not getting along,” one said,

“Eelationships can be tough, yes,” Donahoe said.

“If someone came to you and they were telling you, ‘Hey, I'm have suicidal thoughts,’ you wouldn't be a positive friend if you kept that secret,” Donahoe said.

“I got here they were telling me about the socioemotional well-being of our students, and I was like, ‘I'm an educator, what do I know about socioemotional and all that?’” McLean Principal Dr. Ellen Reilly said. “But our kids cannot access their education unless they're mentally well.”

Suicide is the leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24 in Virginia, and a recently, a 12-year-old in Fairfax, may have jumped over a railing in an attempt to kill himself.

Sources of Strength not only encourages kids to speak up about their own feelings, it urges them to reach out to adults who can intervene and help with treatment. It teaches how to navigate that tricky line between being a caring, trustworthy friend and sounding the alarm.

“I think that any time a friend is in danger, that they might do something to themselves, it's really important to let their families know,” one student said.

Sources of Strength also encourages students to reach out if they need help.

“It's better to go out and reach for help instead of keeping it inside of you having it kill you little by little, so that group in this school is one of the good ones,” Tatiana said.

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