Vale Middle School program aims to reduce anxiety, build resilience among students

VALE – An innovative program in its second year at Vale Middle School aims to reduce suicide, substance abuse and bullying among students.

“Sources of Strength” puts the emphasis on combating issues such as suicide by equipping student peer leaders with training and guidance from parents, teachers and administrators.

The program is about prevention, said Jennifer Goldthorpe, middle school counselor.

“It takes students from across the student body who can be trained to be a connector to help. They are trained that if they see someone who needs help they can connect them to people who can help,” said Goldthorpe.

The student peer counselors are not trained therapists, said Goldthorpe. Instead they function as a kind of trip wire to signal officials of a student facing a challenge.

The program addresses a growing concern regarding mental health of middle school and high school students, said Goldthorpe.

“We are getting more requests for mental health services than I have ever seen. There are waiting lists for students to be seen by outside mental health professionals. We are all noticing a huge increase in anxiety,” said Goldthorpe.

The program, which is funded through the state, is also a way for the school district to meet education prevention requirements, said Goldthorpe.

“Before the program starts, it takes leaders, teachers, counselors and trains them and then it has them pick a diverse group of students,” said Goldthorpe.

The program, she said, also teaches healthy exercise and eating habits to students.

Goldthorpe said the program also allows teachers and counselors to have “more eyes and ears” on students who may be in crisis.

“One of our biggest barriers is I don’t know when a student needs help. There could be a student struggling and sometimes I get referrals from adults and teachers but my favorites ones are from students,” said Goldthorpe.

The program is also very much about creating an inclusive environment in the classroom, said Vale Middle School Principal Lisa Andersen.

“It is a more peer-led than teacher-led. I think that gives kids a voice. In general, as we are coming out of Covid, we need to bring kids back together,” she said.

Andersen said the program was needed.

“When we initially asked students when you are feeling down, what do you do? How do you help a friend who is feeling down? We realized kids don’t really have a lot of tools in their toolbox,” said Andersen.

A key symbol of the program is a multi-colored wheel that lists attributes to building resilience and seeking help if a student struggles.

The wheel is sliced into different categories – such as generosity, physical health, family support, positive friends, mentors and healthy activities – and is a base for the different initiatives for the program.

Each category is demonstrated in a hands-on activity. For example, recently during lunch, the school required students to divide into groups separate from their usual cliques and where a trained peer then led a discussion on issues such as bullying or suicide.

“Or sometimes it is a coloring contest with the wheel we hand out,” said Andersen.

The last week of school, said Andersen, one of the Sources of Strength activities included carnival based on the different strengths on the wheel.

Andersen said she believes the program is successful.

“I think our students are able to identify what their personal sources of strength are. They become more aware of some of the other resources that are available in our community, such as suicide prevention,” said Andersen.

She said internal research at the middle school showed – between the start of school and mid-year – the program almost doubled the number of healthy strategies students use to deal with stressful situations.

Bailey King, 14, and an eighth-grade peer counselor, said the message of Sources of Strength is straightforward.

“It is OK to have problems but know there are people in the school that can help,” said King.

King said many students face anxiety. From producing good grades to fitting in to managing the impact of social media, youth face an array of triggers that can spiral into a mental health crisis.

“We are trying to be perfect all the time,” said King.

Social media plays both a positive and negative role for many students, said King.

“It (social media) is what everyone relies on and it is part of our culture,” said King.

Social media, though, is also a doorway into the personal lives of students in astonishing ways.

“We hear about everything,” said King.

King said often students can be reluctant to turn to someone else for help and that is why Sources of Strength is valuable.

“It helps other people feel good about themselves and to make the school a better place,” said King.

News tip? Contact Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

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