Peer Mentors Promote Mental Health 

In tough economic times for Maine schools, one has found a way to support struggling teens at no additional cost. Through a pilot program at the University of Maine, nine students at Piscataquis Community Secondary School are now certified mentors for middle and high school students. As educators in Guilford struggle with the burden of tight budgeting, administrators say this free program is making a world of difference and could potentially save lives.”We don’t have the time. It is mainly a putting out fire type of approach,” explained guidance director Eric Steeves. Budget cuts and increased responsibilities put rural Maine counselors in a tough spot. More often than not, academic programs win out at the budget table, which leaves limited resources to deal with teenage mental health issues. Superintendent Paul Stearns asked, “If that student is suffering from depression or any other mind altering factors, how are they to be expected to learn?” A unique program at Piscataquis Community Secondary School in Guilford has found a way to ease the strain on their sole guidance counselor, at no cost to them. “I’m pretty good with the students so I got recommended and then I just went to training,” said Junior Kyla Desmarias. A pilot program designed by an intern at the University of Maine has certified 9 of their students as peer mentors and so far, it is working. “It means a lot to me because there’s not always very many people that are able to understand what a child my age is going through,” explained Autumn Tobbee, an 8th grade mentee. “It is not just how do you feel about this, it is you have to ask a lot of open ended questions to try to get them to give you more than just a one word answer. It is a lot harder than you would think,” said Danielle Spaulding, a junior mentor. During a one day crash course, educators shared basic skills on how to help ease the burden of a busy mind. “There was role playing, there were segments on multi-culturalism, confidentiality, active listening skills, I was just very impressed,” said Steeves. Still the stakes of some situations are too great to handle alone. “In the first week, I did have a peer counselor come to me with a concern about a student.” “If it is harmful then we will go to a trusted adult and they will get you some help,” added Spaulding. In March, administrators faced an escalating challenge of what they describe as gang related activity in the school. For a group of middle school aged boys, a case of cyber bullying left the computer screen and entered the hallways. “People get shoved a lot and they get verbally and physically assaulted,” said Tobbe. “Grabbed him in a headlock, chocking headlock and it was broken up,” said Stearns. It was a situation mitigated through the temporary presence of the local Sheriff’s Department, and the open ears of peer mentors concerned with bullying. Tobbe talked about her bout with depression saying, “It really feels painful emotionally because you never know what the future has to hold so it’s like sometimes you don’t know am I ever going to get help or am I ever going to get through this?” Administrators are committed to avoiding a contentious climate, and think the eyes and ears this program provides could prevent a tragedy like December’s in Newtown, Connecticut. “This type of program has the potential to uncover a situation like that before it even comes to light. The student’s message to bullies is a clear one. At one point then gathered in front of the WABI camera crew and exclaimed “Just don’t do it!”