In recent years, suicides in local schools have shaken many communities. According to data from the Pediatric Health Information System, the admission of patients 5 to 17 years of age for suicidal thoughts or actions more than doubled between 2008 to 2015. Depression in youth has been linked to many factors, such as academic stress, bullying, increased use of social media, gender identity, prejudice, and others. One hypothesis for this sudden doubling is the increase in stressful environments and unfettered access to the internet and social media.
Washtenaw County’s Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Depression Awareness program is a way for local students to reach out to other students with education and help. The past year has seen a dramatic surge as the program in Washtenaw County has expanded from eight participating high schools last year to 13 high schools and nine middle schools this school year, according to Stephanie Salazar, MPH, outreach and education program manager at the University of Michigan Depression Center.
The goals of the Peer-to-Peer Depression Awareness Program are to educate high school and middle school students about depression and depressive illnesses, and to support them in finding creative ways to convey this knowledge to their peers. Ultimately, the program seeks to promote the early detection of depression, bipolar disorder and related illnesses.
Students volunteer to be part of the Peer-to-Peer Depression Awareness Program at each school. Then, teams of students attend an educational conference to learn about depression, mood and anxiety, as well as how to create safe and effective public health awareness campaigns. After the conference, the Depression Center staff provides support to the teams to help them work to develop and implement the awareness campaign that best suits their school. Students create lesson plans, assemblies, videos, announcements, and posters.
Detecting a trend
Mill Creek Middle School in Dexter, one of the schools that joined in November, became involved due to trends detected by school staff.
“Mental health issues for adolescents have been steadily increasing for the past 10 years,” said Rob Grams, a 17 year school counselor at Mill Creek. “Our school was approached by UM to be part of an initiative that expands the existing high school Peer-to-Peer program to the middle school level. Mill Creek has always been a proponent of depression awareness and education and the loss of one of our students to depression last year has made us even more sensitive to the issues. This program gave us an opportunity to expand our efforts.”
Grams said it is too early to evaluate the success of the program, but they have noticed some positive results. “Informally, we are finding that our students on the team have good insight into student attitudes about mental illness and some of the areas we need to target in our campaign,” said Grams.
A student’s voice
Eighth grader Grace Byron is one of the 11 Mill Creek students currently involved in the program. “I decided to join Peer-to-Peer because I felt that people at my school were treating others with depression like it was a disease that they could catch if they hung with them too much,” said Byron. “This is unfair to the student with depression because then they get excluded for something that isn’t even their fault.”
“There are many benefits when you are helping students with depression,” Byron said. “Some of them include stopping the person with depression from becoming too isolated and making new friends with people you have helped along the way.”
“I would strongly suggest that students get involved in the program,” said Byron. “It provides awareness of mental illnesses which is useful to know when going into high school. Many people have a difficult time balancing all the work and the program alerts people if the work becomes too much.”
Participating school counselors can arrange student participation. If a school wants additional information, contact Stephanie Salazar at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional information is available at depressioncenter.org.