A group of peer leaders and teachers at Cartersville High School want to offer hope and support to students who may be thinking of ending their lives.
Fifty students and eight teachers gathered at the school system's central office Oct. 29 for training in Sources of Strength, a suicide prevention program designed to promote connections between peers and caring adults.
The training session — teachers in the morning then students joining them for lunch and staying until 4 p.m. – taught the peer leaders the skills they need to help support a school environment in which students feel safe enough to ask for help.
Social studies teacher Melissa Moore, who oversaw the training, said the high school started a student-led group called Simply4U last year "in response to the loss of one of our students."
"The students wanted to create a place for those students who were struggling with a variety of issues," she said. "Close to 35 of our students attended mental health first-aid training provided by Tanner-Willowbrooke to be more prepared to deal with their peers."
This year, Cartersville Superintendent Dr. Marc Feuerbach and Bartow Against Drugs Program Manager Scott Sherwin brought Sources of Strength to Moore's attention and wrote a grant for its implementation, and she was "thrilled" when CHS Principal Shelley Tierce and Feuerbach asked her if she would be a part of it.
"After the loss of our student, there seemed to be a real need to address issues like mental wellness in our school," she said. "Mental health is something we, as a community, have shied away from for years, maybe because we felt that if we talked about it, something negative might occur."
But research and data are showing "that we need to deal with the many issues facing our students," Moore said.
"Sources of Strength empowers our youth and can affect positive change," she said. "We need to find new ways to reach our students and give them hope for a positive future."
The program is an "innovative way to help kids who are having problems they feel are too big to manage," said Spanish teacher Kimberly Rentz, who went through the training.
"The most positive thing about it for me is that it builds a support system that will be in place before a kid feels too overwhelmed," she said. "It's an 'upstream' approach."
Moore said helping students who are struggling is important to her because they "mean the world to me."
"It’s hard to explain," she said. "The grief we experienced together in 2016 was unbearable, and I felt the need to be that person who would be there for them. Now we have the opportunity to work with Scott Sherwin and the phenomenal people at Sources. It is extremely personal for me, as these kids are more like family. It’s all about engagement and letting them know that there is support out there for them."
"Kids have it tough," Rentz said. "There are so many expectations placed on them in school, with parents, with peers. Sometimes they are so overwhelmed, they feel like there's no way out. They feel that things will never get better. Sources of Strength involves peer leaders and trusted adults that are recognized as a support system. The peer leaders can help guide someone who is struggling to a trusted adult. Just knowing that there is someone to talk to and help often offers hope."
To choose the students for the training, Moore said she sent a letter to all CHS teachers that described the organization and asked them to recommend student-leaders to participate.
"We wanted students from all social groups, all ethnicities and all religious affiliations," she said. "The teachers sent us a very diverse list of names. The student engagement team gathered and chose 50 names to participate. It was very diverse and was a great sample of what we have here at CHS."
Senior Anna Chapman, who already is involved in Simply4U, wanted to be part of the program to "expand my knowledge about student engagement so that I can better participate in Simply4U."
"I think this program will help my peers because the students at our school need a support group to lean on if they ever feel like the weight of the world is becoming too much," she said. "With all the stress and pressure put on students these days, everyone deserves a place to talk about how they’re feeling and have others empathize or receive advice from other students and advisers."
At the training session, the peer leaders were trained to be safe places for students who might be struggling with harming themselves to discuss their feelings and situations.
"The students learned that our mental wellness is extremely important and that we all have stressors in our lives," Moore said. "They learned about healthy ways to respond to this stress and to the adverse situations in our life. It’s all about making connections and reaching out to others."
They discussed ways to deal with their own mental wellness — surrounding themselves with positive friends and trusted mentors, having family support, focusing on their spirituality, working on generosity and participating in healthy activities, she said.
Chapman, 18, said part of the training involved learning how to "engage with different groups of students so that everyone at school can feel included."
"During the training session, my peers and I learned how to properly engage with people in different social groups than ourselves so that we can positively touch as many lives as possible," she said. "We also learned the importance of inclusion in the school and how that betters the atmosphere of Cartersville High School and the community of Cartersville. Lastly, we learned the importance of having a solid network of support — such as spirituality, friends and family — to help when things get rough."
Rentz said she wanted to go through the training session because "I remember what is was like in high school."
"I remember the pressures and the low points," she said. "I remember feeling alone and hopeless at times. I want to help the kids I teach overcome those struggles."
The most important thing she said she learned was that "most suicide prevention is done when a child is already in crisis."
"Sources of Strength employs an 'upstream' approach," she said. "This means that before a child reaches that absolutely hopeless point, there is a support system already in place."
Throughout the school year, the group will be working on "campaigns to promote a more inclusive, welcoming and engaging school culture," Moore said.
"Our first activity has been creating a family tree of sorts," she said. "Family means so many things to so many people — blood, chosen, etc. We have a paper tree growing outside of my doorway with tons of photos of what we call our family, our support system. It’s pretty cool."
Sources of Strength groups have to complete a certain number of campaigns each year, "and we are currently working on one that gets the entire student body involved, which is the goal of our program — to make sure all the students have a place of refuge in the stormy sea of life," Chapman said.
The next campaign the group sponsors will focus on generosity — the annual CHS Thanksgiving Food Drive.
Moore called the Sources of Strength trainees a "phenomenal group of teenagers and staff."
"They are already reaching out to students outside of their social circles," she said. "I can see it in the halls. Students mentoring others. Students reaching out to those students who seem lonely. Wow."
Witnessing the energy level in the central office board room during the training session was amazing to Moore.
"The kids and the teachers are excited to be a part of something so positive," she said. "Sixty people of all walks of life, gathered together to find ways to help their school be an even better place. The world could learn a great deal from their example."