SHERIDAN — Mental health has a stigma. By its nature, it cannot be tangibly measured with a quick glance. The stresses that accompany school, sports, extracurriculars and a social life can overwhelm high school students.
Who do young people turn to? Someone they can trust, someone who understands what they are going through. Most often, the confidant is a friend.
Peers are an excellent resource, but teenagers are rarely equipped to handle another teenager’s health concerns. A high school student cannot fix a friend’s ear infection, nor can he solve a friend’s depression.
At Sheridan High School, Sources of Strength provides students and staff with basic tools to help someone who is struggling. The national program focuses on suicide prevention and connecting students to the proper care they need.
Sources of Strength began at SHS in fall 2015. The Sheridan County Suicide Prevention Coalition initiated the discussion to bring Sources of Strength to the high school. The school district agreed, and a Sources of Strength member trained a few guidance counselors and students shortly after.
Sources of Strength emphasizes eight different areas that help prevent the risk of suicide: family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, medical access and mental health.
In the first year, the challenge mainly involved spreading the word about the program and increasing student interest. Now that students know what the group is about, more of them — usually 20 to 30 — attend meetings and connect struggling students to counselors.
Anne Travis and Tom Schnatterbeck, two high school guidance counselors, said they have noticed an increase in student referrals over the past year. When the counselors meet with a student, they identify the severity of the student’s needs and either contact parents or connect them with someone who can help.
Five peer leaders — seniors Pippin Robison, Molly Green and Olivia Thoney along with juniors Cameron Brown and Matthew Legler — organize the meetings and campaigns at SHS. They aim to spread support throughout the school in a variety of ways. Robison said students can help directly provide healthy activities, mentors and positive friends to those who are struggling.
The group meets formally at least once per month, and the leaders gather most weeks to go over progress and other ideas with school counselors. This month, the group initiated a thankfulness challenge. Every student in the school was given a journal with three open spaces to write what they are thankful for each day. Sources of Strength will then make designs from the writings and put them up in the hallways.
Last month, the five students led a three-day mountain retreat at Camp Bethel. Twenty-eight other students, including many underclassmen and four counselors, attended. It required a ton of planning by the student leaders and counselors, but they all said it was worth the effort.
The first day mostly involved the students getting to know each other and settling into the group setting. The students did more interactive exercises the next day, as they could only take so much sitting and talking.
The student leaders said the best part of the retreat was an activity in which everyone shared something personal about themselves that most people would otherwise not have known. It was emotional at times and created serious bonds between students. Brown said she didn’t want to leave the retreat because it was such a fulfilling experience.
Legler said it was important to build off the success of the mountain retreat by having those who attended tell their friends about the group. It was important for underclassmen to take responsibility as well, so the retreats can continue in future years.
Recruiting students, especially male students, to Sources of Strength can still be difficult because of the stigma associated with mental health. Legler is the only male leader, and there are often only a few male students at the meetings. Robison said male athletes are especially hesitant to go, but a few have attended the meetings and enjoyed them.
Another challenge is time. Students are involved in sports and other clubs after school, so it can be difficult to find an ideal meeting time. It can also be a challenge for underclassmen to attend meetings because they can’t drive.
Funding is limited as well. The group doesn’t need much money at the moment because most events occur at school, but the students have expressed interested in expanding in the future.