By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor
Region – As is all too well-known, the mental health of our young people is more tenuous than ever. Record numbers of teen boys and girls (and sadly, even younger) are facing stress, depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
An innovative nonprofit program, the SHINE Initiative, funded in part by Fidelity Bank, is hoping to help. As such, the program is investing $50,000 to start Student Wellness Advisory Teams (SWAT) in up to 24 new schools including Westborough High School, Shrewsbury High School, Hudson High School and Touchstone Community School in Grafton. The initiative is currently in 16 schools across Central Massachusetts including Grafton High School, Marlborough High School and St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury. It is fully funded by the SHINE initiative at no cost to the schools.
SWAT is a student-led program that is designed to empower students to reduce the stigma of mental illness, end discrimination, and develop in-school activities that promote self-care, positive coping mechanisms, and improved total mental wellness.
“The social and emotional well-being of students has never been more important,” said Paul Richard, executive director of the SHINE Initiative. “It’s been identified as a number one health priority.”
The SHINE program was started in 2004 after administrators and employees of Fidelity Bank were surveyed and asked, “What is a gap in the nonprofit world that they could make a positive impact on?” The issue they chose was one regarding mental health and the importance of working to reduce the stigma around it, especially among younger people.
Based in Worcester, the program has two other fulltime employees besides Richard: Megan Sullivan, youth outreach coordinator, and Jessika Zequeira, community education specialist.
Richard explained that SHINE uses a four pronged approach:
- Training sessions with administration and teachers.
- Going into the classrooms and talking to the students in small groups as opposed to a big assembly.
- Discuss the different types and causes of mental illness while reaffirming it’s not a choice or a sign of weakness.
- Impress upon the students to be “a good listener” and learn to recognize signs.
Richard stressed that “we are not teaching kids how to be mental health counselors – more to know how to recognize the signs if a friend needs help and how to support them as they seek that help.”
When Richard meets with kids in schools, he will often ask them, “How many of you have had a broken bone? How many of you told your parents about it? Now, how many of you have had sadness, depression anxiety etc.? And how many of you told your parents about that?”
“We really want them to understand it’s the same thing. It’s nothing to be ashamed about,” he said. “Too many times we get stuck and can’t get beyond ‘mental’ – we jump to ‘illness,’ not ‘health.’”
“It’s brain pain and the brain is the most important part of your body. It controls everything,” he added. “So if you’re having pain there, you need help, just as you would for a broken bone.”
“We stress that ‘you can live and thrive with a mental illness – it doesn’t have to define you, it’s just part of you.’”
“The kids inspire us with their courage, conviction and desire to help others. At the end of every class, kids open up. They want to help their peers,” he said. “This prompted us to form small wellness advisory groups.
SHINE also offers other ways to help kids to de-stress such as bringing in therapy dogs and goats, hosting guest speakers and workshops and teaching yoga, meditation, tai chi and other techniques.
Forums are also held for school administrators and parents.
Each October the group hosts a gala at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, featuring a silent auction, dinner and keynote speaker. Previous speakers have included notables such as former Mass. Gov. Michael Dukakis and his wife Kitty; Margaret Trudeau, the former wife of the late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau; and Patrick Kennedy, a former U.S. Representative and the son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.
This year’s gala, to be held Thursday, Oct. 18, will feature Tanya Brown, an author and mental health advocate and the sister of the late Nicole Brown Simpson. Brown will share her story of how she has used has own personal challenges of coping with her sister’s death, and her own suicide attempt, to help others as a nationally recognized author, speaker and life coach.