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Teens, school staff unite against stress

Gunn's new peer-network program promotes healthy, supportive community

Selected Gunn High School students have begun trainings as part of a new, comprehensive wellness program called "Sources of Strength," which empowers peers to support each other, connect with trusted caring adults, and change how teens perceive the need to ask for help, according to Shashank Joshi, psychiatrist and Stanford University assistant professor of psychiatry, pediatrics and education.

Sources of Strength (SOS) was originally developed in the late 1990s in North Dakota as a teen suicide-prevention program, showing encouraging results in a statewide campaign. Since then it has expanded nationwide and shown positive results in research studies, received awards, and been recognized as a "best practices program," according to Joshi, who is directing and evaluating the program as it rolls out at Gunn.

The key to SOS's success is the use of peer networks to deliver positive messages that ripple out through social circles and community-building activities, and in turn leads to a sense of connection, healthier behaviors and increased resilience. SOS's approach acknowledges the critical role of young people.

"If the adults try to do it alone, it falls flat," the SOS website states.

To launch this program, Joshi and SOS recruited Gunn's student-led peer support network known as ROCK (for "Reach Out. Care. Know."), founded in 2009 in response to student suicides. Through trainings, outreach and activities, ROCK members offer social and emotional support for any student needing a safe and sympathetic ear. ROCK earned recognition for its accomplishments last spring with the Positive Peer Influence Award from the nonprofit Project Cornerstone.

The SOS program is a good fit with ROCK's mission, according to ROCK student leaders and Paul Dunlap, ROCK's teacher adviser and Gunn English teacher. With ROCK's buy-in and funding from the school district and Packard Children's Hospital, SOS began this summer with initial trainings for 10 ROCK students, Dunlap, Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos and Assistant Principal Tom Jacoubowsky.

"Everybody was pretty excited about it," said Matthis Pluska, Gunn senior and ROCK leader.

According to Gunn junior and ROCK leader Helen Carefoot, the SOS training focuses on a "wheel" of potential sources of strength -- both internal and external -- in a young person's life. The eight "spokes" on the wheel are: family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, medical access and mental health. Each one of these areas is examined and discussed in the training.

The SOS curriculum helps teens gain balance, make better choices and cope with stress, according to Carefoot.

"It helps us to steer a course for ourselves," she said. "It encourages an empowered peer-to-peer culture to permeate the high school."

Carefoot said there is a "big emphasis" running through the program on the importance of intrinsic motivation.

"Push yourself based on your own interests," she said. "If you have too many voices telling you what to do, then you have trouble making good choices."

Chandler Gardiner, Gunn junior and ROCK leader, agrees. SOS gives students a "tool kit," she said, to develop better self-knowledge and the ability to cope with stress. "Trusted adults also are so important. They can help with situations that seem overwhelming."

"Sources of Strength is a guided process for developing self and purpose," said Gunn grad and ROCK co-founder Yoni Alon, who participated in the summer training. "It's important for students to feel like they have their own purpose in whatever they're doing because otherwise they won't be happy."

Last month, 27 Gunn staff members volunteered to attend an SOS training for adults, taught by SOS's Scott LoMurray of Colorado, during a staff development day. "It was inspiring to be in a group of colleagues so committed ... to the emotional, social, ethical, spiritual, physical and intellectual health of our students," Dunlap wrote in an email to the Weekly.

Earlier this month, 65 invited students representing various campus groups, along with 15 staff members, participated in an SOS training during school hours. It was the largest student group SOS has trained. According to Dunlap, the students were enthusiastic and spent time brainstorming ways to communicate positive messages -- those "promoting strength and complete wellness" -- throughout the community. Ideas included flash mobs, videos, game nights and T-shirts. "The overall effect could be quite powerful," Dunlap wrote.

According to the SOS website, "peer leaders" also are taught how to help other teens who are struggling emotionally, or who might be suicidal.

"Students left (the SOS training at Gunn) knowing more about how to handle certain situations where a kid was in trouble," Pluska said. The training also included telltale signs that might indicate a student is in need of help.

According to Dunlap, ROCK leaders will continue the work of SOS and maintain a communications network with all SOS participants. Another SOS training for additional students and staff is being planned in the next several months, Pluska said.

Related stories:

Driven to succeed, part 1: Getting off the treadmill

Part 2: Do high schools squash the joy of learning?

Part 3: Whose problem is it, anyway?

Editorial: The achievement treadmill

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