Berkeley High School seniors launch mental health education program

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Graduating Berkeley High School seniors Ruby Spies and Abigail Steckel have launched plans for a peer-led mental health education program, to be implemented in the next school year.

The Mental and Emotional Education Team, or MEET, is a program intended to inform students about mental health resources and reduce associated stigmas. According to Spies, a cohort of 15 upperclassmen will be trained by a licensed therapist and will deliver presentations to freshman classes through the school’s existing social living elective — similar to the school’s Sexual Health Information From Teens program, which conducts sexual health workshops.

“Coming from peers, people are very receptive to it,” Spies said. “(It) works really well. What if we did that same model and applied it to mental health? We ran it by some peers, (who) thought it was a great idea, and got started.”

According to the proposal presented to the school board and City Council in April 2017, the curriculum covered would include overviews of various mental health disorders, coping mechanisms, methods to help a person in crisis, means to reduce stigma and ways to connect with existing resources.

MEET will be a graded class with mandatory attendance, and student educators will receive a stipend for their contributions. Additionally, the presentations will be overseen by a trained clinician, who will assist in curriculum development and provide immediate counseling during presentations.

The impetus for the program stemmed from a survey of 242 students in February 2017, conducted by a subcommittee of the Berkeley Youth Commission, which found that about 60 percent of students who said they needed support had not accessed mental health resources. Steckel said a majority of students also indicated that they would want to talk to a peer as their first point of contact.

“(We) need to reduce stigma and to increase awareness of services,” Steckel said. “We want to build the capacity of student leaders to change the culture of mental health on campus.”

MEET was first approved in April 2017 by the Youth Commission, which requested joint funding from City Council and the Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education. In June 2017, City Council referred the proposal to the 2×2 Committee and agreed to consider funding in the midyear budget. According to Steckel, City Council allocated $46,000 to MEET in December, while the school board allocated another $30,000 in April. Spies said the money would go toward hiring a full-time school district employee, student stipends and costs of materials.

“The training the students will get in how to be helpful in emotional crisis issues will hold them in good stead for the rest of their lives,” said City Councilmember Linda Maio, a member of the 2×2 Committee, in an email. “We should all have such training. I look forward to seeing it unfold at the high school.”

Revati Thatte is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @revati_thatte.