Student ambassadors aim to erase the stigma of mental health issues among their peers, thanks to Be Free Lake training.
Seth Sutherland was 17 when he shot and killed himself nearly two years ago at Lake Minneola High School. His death has prompted 49 (and counting) students to become mental health ambassadors, trained to recognize and help any peers who are facing anxiety, depression, or sadness.
Lake Minneola High School hosted the You’re Not Alone pilot program in the spring for youth mental health and suicide prevention training. The program was organized through Be Free Lake, a substance abuse and violence prevention coalition based in Mount Dora, and aided by a grant from the Women’s Giving Alliance, a foundation based in Jacksonville. The program is slated to return this fall.
Through the program’s five training sessions, teen ambassadors were taught to recognize and refer those in need of help to appropriate adults and resources.
“One in four teens is dealing with some sort of mental health issue, and suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teens, behind vehicle tragedies. And when you think about it like that, it’s major,” says Christopher Lujan, coalition administrator for Be Fee Lake, and one of the program instructors along with Kevin Pokorney and Dr. Candace Booth.
“We’re happy that Lake Minneola is being proactive,” adds Christopher, praising the support of the faculty in recommending students for the training.
“Young people will typically go to another young person; these ambassadors are taught to recognize warning signs,” Kevin says. “The more eyes and ears we have, the better.”
Eventually, the goal is to get You’re Not Alone into more schools.
Christopher expects Lake Minneola High School to have 90 ambassadors at the one-year mark of the program. Parents are getting involved, too, through a companion youth mental health first aid program, part of a national-level certification process from an eight-hour class that prepares parents when a child comes to them and says, “I’m feeling stressed or I’m feeling depressed.”
The teen ambassadors told the Be Free Lake instructors they recognize anxiety and depression as serious concerns.
“They know how big the issue of suicide is with the teen community, and they all identified that they want to be that person to help their fellow classmates out,” Christopher says.
“These kids have compassion,” Kevin adds. “Many said they had friends that they were concerned about. This program teaches them what is depression, what is it like? Anxiety, and what is that about? What do I do when I’m feeling blue? What music do I listen to to lift me up? This gives them tools to help them as well as others. One of the strong points in the program is we teach mindfulness, which makes them say, ‘OK. What am I feeling?’”
Photos of the ambassadors are on the school walls. They also make public service announcements at the school and sporting events to help erase the stigma of mental health issues.
“Basically, what we do is we train them to have a little bit of empathy and promote social awareness; to be that person identified as that individual anyone can feel comfortable coming to,” Christopher says.
From there, the ambassador refers individuals in need of help to counselors and other resources.
“It’s really closing that gap,” he adds.
Signs of depression in teens
- Sadness or hopelessness
- Irritability, anger, or hostility
- Tearfulness or frequent crying
- Withdrawal from friends or family
- Loss of interest in activities
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits
- Restlessness or agitation
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Lack of enthusiasm and motivation
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Source: befreelake.org
What you can do
If you think someone has a mental health issue:
- Assist in finding professional help.
- Offer support. Let the person know you are there for them.
- Be gentle but persistent.
- Listen. Don’t lecture. Do not judge and do not offer unsolicited advice.
- Validate feelings. Acknowledge what the person is thinking or feeling.
For more information or assistance in finding help, visit befreelake. org or call 352.383.2099