Tapping the power of friendship to boost teen mental health
Gunn's 'Sources of Strength' program reports success after first year
An effort to bolster teen mental health at Gunn High School by harnessing the power of peer influence has shown success in its first year, according to survey results.
The initiative, called Sources of Strength, is one of several teen wellness programs at the school, which suffered a devastating string of student deaths by suicide in 2009.
Surveys of some 1,500 Gunn students — taken in the fall of 2011 and again in spring of 2012 — indicate about 70 percent of students by the end of the year were aware of mental health messages disseminated by trained fellow students.
The 59 students who last fall volunteered to be "peer leaders" were taught to help their friends change their coping practices — by identifying a trusted adult from whom they could seek help, for example — when faced with depression, stress or other problems. Twenty-seven adults on campus also participated in training.
Program leaders aim to instill in a broad range of student social networks the message that it's good to seek help for oneself or for a friend facing depression or emotional challenges. The idea is to use the "natural resources" of positive activities, friends and adult mentors to help kids get through difficult times.
"This isn't something you can just broadcast to 1,700 students and hope it happens," said Shashank V. Joshi, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University Medical Center.
"You start with peer leaders and propagate it through social messaging. Peer leaders are your agents of change — not the only ones, but important ones."
Joshi summarized first-year results of the three-year program Thursday, Nov. 29, at a meeting of Palo Alto Project Safety Net, a coalition of community groups formed in the wake of the suicides to support student social-emotional health.
He was accompanied by University of Rochester Medical Center psychologist Peter Wyman, a partner in the Gunn project who in 2010 launched a long-term study of the effectiveness of Sources of Strength in dozens of schools. Wyman has worked with some 100 schools across the country, including 35 in New York State.
"The peer leaders at Gunn worked very hard and did some positive culture change and reached a majority of students in their school," Wyman said of the first-year results.
"We can't necessarily know that it's all due to Sources of Strength, but it's certainly consistent with the changes we're targeting."
The percentage of Gunn students reporting they felt comfortable talking about personal problems with someone outside of their family or school went from 70 percent in the fall to 90 percent in the spring. The percentage saying they could discuss problems with an adult in their family went from 85 percent to 95 percent.
More than 95 percent of students in both fall and spring agreed with the statement: "I can think of an adult who I trust enough to help a suicidal friend" and "My school has people who can help students through hard times."
However, the percentage of students reporting they would actually seek help from a counselor or other adult at school remained unchanged, at 49 percent, from fall to spring.
Wyman said that was to be expected.
"We'd expect that norms in the school as far as, 'Is it acceptable to go to an adult and ask for help?' typically take longer — a couple of years — to change," he said. "Gunn continues to be a school where there are going to be a substantial portion of kids who say, 'Yes, I'd get help for a friend and I know there are adults available, but would I go to an adult myself? Not necessarily.'
"That's where we'll look for continued Sources of Strength messaging, and examples of peer leaders going to adults for help in their own lives, to begin to change that norm at the level of the school community."
Sources of Strength built upon initiatives launched by Gunn students themselves in the wake of the suicides.
The peer-counseling service ROCK (Reach Out, Care and Know) and the blog hmggmh.wordpress.com (Henry M. Gunn Gives Me Hope) were launched in 2009 by several students who were then seniors, including Joyce Liu, who went on to the University of California, Berkeley.
The student-led ROCK group continued after Liu's graduation and later was contacted by Sources of Strength, offering help, according to Gunn English teacher Paul Dunlap.
"We looked at their curriculum, and it seemed like a good fit," Dunlap said.
Current Gunn senior Chandler Gardner joined ROCK in her freshman year and continues as a peer counselor.
"High school can be a really tough place, and teens especially may not always want to talk to an adult," Gardner said. "ROCK creates peers we can talk to. They're in high school too, and they know the test, the teachers and everything we're going through."
Gardner said the purpose of the peer-counseling program — originally started as a suicide-prevention effort — has "changed to fit the needs of Gunn as the years have passed and happily we've had no more suicides.
"Now we're more of a community-building club and do what we can to support our community as a whole," she said.
Next year, plans are for student peer leaders to meet in small groups with adult advisers at least six times and continue wellness messaging campaigns through posters, presentations and online.
The goal, said Joshi, is to boost the acceptability of seeking help from adults for distress and expanding what it means to be a "loyal friend to include getting help for a friend who's distressed or suicidal."
Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos said the ROCK/Sources of Strength survey results corroborate Gunn's recently released results of the California Healthy Kids Survey.
"Our Gunn students feel connected and safe at Gunn. They want to be here," Villalobos said. "We do have areas that we will continue to work on always -- student connectedness, supporting positive student-adult relationships, parent and community education."
Wyman began studying Sources of Strength after a student survey taken as part of a large randomized trial of adult suicide-prevention training showed suicidal students are much less willing to seek help from adults than their non-suicidal peers and that teens tend to seek help from their friends.
A subsequent study of Sources of Strength in six Georgia high schools showed that the peer-based program changed social norms by increasing rejection of the "code of silence" about distressed friends and increasing expectations among students that adults can help.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.