Ruby Spies and Abigail Steckel, graduating seniors at Berkeley High School, are leaving a legacy behind. They spearheaded the creation of the Mental and Emotional Education Team (MEET), a peer mental health education program to inform students of mental health issues and resources, reduce stigma and barriers to access, and improve health equity for students.
The idea for MEET started with a discussion on the City of Berkeley Youth Commission about how to strengthen mental health supports for students at Berkeley High School (BHS). Both Steckel and Spies were serving on the commission at the time, and took it upon themselves to research and develop a proposal.
In February and March 2017, they conducted a survey of 242 students at BHS, and found that 60.4% of students reported struggling with mental health, and only 42% of those students had accessed services. 51% of all students surveyed said that if they were experiencing mental health challenges and that they would prefer their first point of contact be a fellow student, and yet only 22% indicated they were comfortable talking about mental health.
Abby and Ruby realized that mental health peer educators would be an effective solution to both increase awareness about mental health challenges and create more opportunities for peer support around mental health. In April 2017, they sent their proposal to the School Board and the City Council, and have secured joint funding from the city and school district to implement the program next year. The funding will cover compensation for a half-time supervising clinician and stipends for student presenters.
With support from Fawn Downs, director of Family, Youth and Children Services at the Berkeley Mental Health Department, Spies and Steckel modeled their peer educator curriculum on the successful Sexual Health Information From Teens (SHIFT) and borrowed from a Canadian mental health literacy curriculum.
Peer educators will be trained to give presentations in freshman Social Living classes on symptom identification, coping skills, stigma reduction, and how to access existing resources.
Spies said that the idea behind the curriculum is to make mental health a universal concept rather than focusing only on mental illness, and to talk about mental health in the context of everyday experiences.
“Students need to be able to differentiate a sad day from mental illness,” Steckel said. “And it’s a topic that everyone needs to gain skills on in some way.”
This semester, the pilot program is underway. Spies has been presenting to freshmen in their Social Living classes, and is sharing the lessons she is learning with the student team preparing for the full launch planned for next school year.
As both Spies and Steckel are about to graduate, they are passing the work on to other student leaders. Since this February, they have been working with three interns recruited from the Academy of Medicine and Public Service to further develop the program. The interns, Kelly Perymon, Makaylah Ashley, and Uliana Kovaleva will also be the first peer educators when the program gets implemented next school year.
Taking the students’ lead, the BHS PTA nvited Ruby and Abigail, Jasdeep Mahli, and therapists working at BHS in the Health Center to talk about the issues with parents at their meeting on May 16 at 6:30pm in the Berkeley High School Library. Slides from the presentation are full of useful information.