JUNEAU, Alaska — Every year since 2008, the incoming freshmen classes at all three Juneau high schools have sat through a class to learn about warning signs of depression and suicide.
Students learned to "A.C.T.," or acknowledge the issue, show compassion and tell a trusted adult if they or one of their friends are struggling. They'd watch a movie and maybe take a quiz. They'd do it all again in the spring.
Some wondered if it was enough.
"We realized that it was just adult-to-student teaching," Hilary Young, a Juneau Youth Services clinician and member of the Juneau Suicide Prevention Coalition, said of the "Signs of Suicide" program. "There was no student-to-student aspect to really get at the population, and there was nothing aimed at violence prevention or substance abuse. There was nothing broad, and there was no student involvement."
Young is one of the people who helped implement Sources of Strength, a new suicide prevention program that emphasizes the role students can play in preventing suicide, substance abuse and bullying.
The nationwide program, which grew out of North Dakota, has been in place in Juneau since 2013. It's still catching on — Young says more students are participating every year.
"The student-to-student piece is really the most effective way of creating change within the schools, or better yet, students partnering with adults to create this change," Young said in an interview Friday. "Sources of Strength finds leaders within various different social groups so there's a cross-section of the school represented, and then they go with their friends, and they kind of have influence there, and you can get to all the different social groups to create the change."
Sources of Strength deputy director Scott LoMurray came to Juneau this week to train students to be peer leaders in the program. Adults (including schoolteachers, AWARE advocates and AmeriCorps volunteers) learned how to be mentors. He held training sessions Wednesday and Thursday at Juneau-Douglas High School and Yakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School. The Friday session was held at Thunder Mountain High School, where about 30 students and five adults attended.
LoMurray explained the principles behind Sources of Strength, such as focusing on strength to create resiliency among youths and explained the role of the peer leaders as "agents of change" within the school.
"We're not asking them to be junior counselors or psychiatrists, and we're not asking them to solve all the issues of their friends," LoMurray said in an interview. "The model is that they really are these agents of change, they're sort of the patient zero of an epidemic of health and a contagion of strength within their school."
Between playing fun games to keep students engaged, students learned about eight aspects of that they can focus on to improve their well-being and that of their friends. The eight pieces are depicted in a wheel: family support, healthy activities, positive friends, mentors, generosity, mental health, medical access and spirituality.
"We talk about risk factors and warning signs (of depression and suicide) and how to talk to a friend, and kind of how to make that hand off to an adult," LoMurray said of the training sessions. "But we spend a lot more time talking about strength and resilience and what are those things are that we know to be protective."
TMHS sophomore Justin Sleppy, 15, is on his school's football team and was wearing his jersey at the session. He said his strengths are probably generosity and healthy activities.
"I like the idea of how we can improve upon them, and how it's like our mission to support our friends in school," he said of the wheel and the program.
Sleppy has helped with a number of projects relating to Sources of Strength during his two years participating as a peer leader. Peer leaders at the schools meet twice a month during lunch to discuss projects they can do to further their cause.
Chloe Varner, an 18-year-old TMHS senior who has been a peer leader since her sophomore year, helped create a mural painted on the school's front window called the Trusted Adult Tree. Though, she noted, it sounds a little like "adultery."
"We should have renamed it," she joked.
She and other peer leaders went to every class and had students write down the names of someone they trust, then placed the leaf-shaped card on the window.
"It really brings the whole school together," she said of Sources of Strength. "It helped me not just think about myself but think about how other people are dealing with their life issues, and it opened my eyes to how everyone is going through something. So with the Sources of Strength wheel, I was able to kind of guide them where they would be in a healthier situation."
LoMurray said Sources of Strength is an evidence-based public health initiative founded in Bismark, North Dakota, that won the National Public Health Practice Award from the American Public Health Association in 2005. Since then, it's taken off across the country.
"The typical mode of prevention in the past was training adults to be, like, these gatekeepers," he noted. "But the students were recognizing that their friends were struggling much sooner, much further upstream and much earlier on. The students also had a whole lot more influence in the way their friends acted and behaved. We really decided there was a gap in not training students. You can't do effective prevention work in high school without getting them involved."
Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, http://www.juneauempire.com