Middle school can be a tough place, especially for kids who don’t fit in with their peers.
Mental health professionals have said that social isolation is a risk factor that can lead to depression and, in the worst cases, self-harm and suicide. Area leaders looked for ways to reach out to that population, and a novel idea was proposed: What if they asked the kids what to do?
That was the start of the “You Belong” program, an initiative spearheaded by the county’s Board of Mental Health to foster inclusion. The program is in place in six middle schools in the county and works from the kids’ point of view outward.
Interested students weigh in on ideas to reach out to fellow classmates who don’t seem connected. They bring ideas to a staff adviser — usually a guidance counselor — to help them to carry out their plans, explained Kathleen Kern, a psychologist and associate director of the county board.
Kern headed the formation of the “You Belong” project, which developed after the county experienced a spike in youth suicides in 2013. That year, five young people killed themselves, a sharp jump from the average of one to two per year, she said.
Suicide prevention specialists and mental health providers launched outreach and awareness programs, such as providing information to pediatricians in the county to encourage depression screenings at well-check appointments. They sponsored a “Keep Your Children Safe” public event in May 2014, featuring law enforcement officials and a father of a child killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut as guest speakers, discussing gun safety and digital protection for kids online.
But one thing they approached with great caution was being too public with their message — statistics show that communities that launch high-profile campaigns against teen suicide risks increasing the suicide numbers, Kern said.
While these measures seemed fruitful, “one critical piece missing was youth-led initiatives,” she said. “The best idea we came up with was keeping our hands off. The students generate ideas we never thought of.”
A year ago, surveys were sent to area schools to gauge interest. Michael Ferrer, director of youth programming at PACE foundation in Lorain, was brought in as a consultant to conduct interviews with students at each of the six schools — Amherst Junior High, Brookside Middle School in Sheffield-Sheffield Lake, Eastern Heights Middle School in Elyria, General Johnnie Wilson and Longfellow middle schools in Lorain, and Midview Middle School in Grafton.
The kids gave their recommendations to appoint mentors for their programs, which were then given to principals to approve. Schools also were required to conduct surveys before and after programs, to track progress.
The county board provided “mini-grants” of $2,500 to participating schools for program costs. The program kicked off in February.
At one school, a “compliment board” was installed with messages like “I know you can do it,” “You really are great,” and “We are in this together.” Ferrer said the idea is kids are having a bad day, they can grab an inspiration-to-go and carry it through the day. In reality, it wound up attracting even more compliments added to the board. At other schools, two or three students will join kids who are eating alone at lunch.
At Midview, students decided to randomly choose lockers to decorate with inspiring messages and candy.
“I heard from a girl who had only been there two weeks, didn’t know anybody and when she saw it on her locker she started crying because she thought it was too late in the year to make friends and nobody would care,” Ferrer said.
The advisory groups are open to any student interested. At one school, Ferrer attended the first meeting — where nine students showed up — and by the fourth meeting, it had grown to 37.
Lisa Simpson, guidance counselor at Midview, said her students also opted to hold biweekly after-school events aimed at giving kids who aren’t into sports or music programs something to do. The programs might feature arts and crafts, or team-building games.
“Those are the ones the kids are trying to reach, the ones who feel like they don’t have a place,” she said. “Most of the students staying for these activities are not the students who usually stay for things, those who feel like they don’t belong in school.
“The way the students are coming together, the way they’re taking it seriously, the way they’re collecting date to prove its effectiveness, is amazing to me,” Ferrer said.
The possibility of sponsoring the program again in the next school year depends on the board’s willingness to fund it again and the results of year-end surveys, Kern said.
“We know that human connection is what helps reduce depression and improve mental health outcomes in the long run,” she said.