Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Maine youth ages 10 to 24, and the rate of suicides among Maine's youth is higher than the national average.
Brunswick High School is responding to the problem with a new program that trains students to raise awareness and be a resource for peers. Maine Public reporter Patty Wight visited the student training Thursday as part of our ongoing series Finding a Way.
The program is called Sources of Strength, and even though it tackles a serious topic, the training is designed to be fun. So when about 30 students from Brunswick High School reported to the school library to begin, the first task was to play a series of games, including one in which students compete to be the fastest to grab a cup off the floor.
The games help connect the students, who range from freshmen to juniors. Mixed in between activities, Sources of Strength trainer Matt Hofmeister teaches the students about their new role as peer leaders. He tells the group that, sometimes, personal problems crop up, even when a lot of other things in life are going well.
"You're worried if you go ask for help it's going to mess up that good stuff you've got going on in your life,” Hofmeister says. “So a lot of what we're going to talk about today is how you, as peer leaders, can help connect your friends. You can come alongside and help them get through some of those barriers, and get them to the help they need and deserve."
During the training, students are asked to identify their own sources of strength that help them get through stressful times. Hofmeister says promoting and normalizing healthy behaviors is a key element of the program, as are the students.
"The students really set the culture of the school,” says Hofmeister. “So by not including them, we really miss the mark a lot of times as adults."
That need for more peer leadership is an issue junior Nicco Bartone identified this spring. He actually pitched the idea for a peer mentoring group to his guidance counselor, who steered him toward this program.
"I believe that there's just some issues that it's more helpful to get the opinion of somebody who is either directly experiencing it themselves or has a greater understanding of what you're doing," says Bartone.
Another peer leader-in-training, junior Grace Clendening, says students are busier than ever and under a lot of pressure.
"I know a lot of students go through mental health problems and are faced with them every day,” Clendening says. “It's a thing where everybody has stuff going on, and not a lot of people have someone to reach out to. And I think this program is the beginning of establishing something where students can seek support.”
The peer leaders will create campaigns to raise awareness about mental health and suicide prevention. They will also serve as individual resources.
Brunswick High social worker Mary Kunhardt says the group will form a network throughout the student body because they span different social groups.
"The bridge kids that are friends with everybody, the kids who are in student government, or the popular kids, the kids that are sort of more on the outskirts,” says Kunhardt. “They're all included in this organization so that they can help create messages that are meaningful for everybody in the school.”
Members of faculty and staff are also being trained as advisors to the group. Sources of Strength has programs across the country, and it came to Maine through a federal grant and a partnership between Mid Coast Hospital and the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Maine, where Mae L'Heureux is the manager of youth programs. She says both organizations are concerned about youth suicides.
"We lose a Mainer under the age of 24 every 10 days,” says L’Heureux. “So it's a huge, huge problem here. And we know that in the state of Maine we have higher than the national average rates of trauma."
That is why, L'Heureux says, it is important for kids to have peers to reach out to for help.
Establishing Sources of Strength at Brunswick High School is just the beginning. She and another NAMI staff member are being trained so they can bring the program to other schools in the state.
The suicide hotline is free and confidential. The number is 1-800-273-8255. An online chat service is also available.
Originally published 5:20 p.m. May 30, 2019.