By Amy DePaul
Tuesday, April 20, 2004
In a promising mental-health approach, female students at two universities are visiting high schools and talking to female teens about their personal experiences with depression, eating disorders and sexual assault.
CINCINNATI (WOMENSENEWS)--It's 8:30 a.m. at Kings High School outside Cincinnati and second-period health class is underway.
A guest speaker from nearby Miami University in Oxford, Ohio begins telling the story of her eating disorder. After she finishes, another Miami student tells the story of her parents'divorce and the severe depression she sufferedas a result. Two more stories follow: one about addiction to diet pills and another about sexual assault.
The college women tell their stories calmly, without sermons, slogans or dire warnings. They recount their darkest moments in explicit detail; just as importantly, they describe how they recovered and how they emerged stronger. After the presentations, the high school girls in the audience are asked to write anonymous notes or questions.
"Your stories inspired me. I know I'm not alone now," wrote one.
Another high schooler wrote, "I used to think I was fat and took diet pills for like two months . . . I try to please everyone."
The Miami women are part of a campus organization called Achieving You. Members typically visit high schools to talk to girls there about their personal experiences with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, rape and related topics.
The Miami program, begun in 2002, is modeled on the original Achieving You, which began two years earlier at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Mental-health educators call these initiatives, which may be the only two programs of their kind, innovative and promising.
"The idea of college women taking it upon themselves to go talk to high school girls is fantastic and a new one," says Michelle Pruett, director of public education for the National Mental Health Association. "Hearing that recovery message--I've been there, and I'm on the other side of it and you can too--is so important."
Peer education on youth issues such as drugs, bullying and self-esteem is nothing new, of course. In the last 10 years, mental health professionals have organized student-to-student outreach programs in colleges and high schools around the nation. What is surprising about Achieving You, however, is that it is entirely student initiated and it is brings young women and adolescent girls together, almost always in all-female settings.
"It's the greatest feeling in the world to know that the high school girls trust us," says Katherine Baylor, former co-director of Achieving You at Illinois. "Our program works because of the years we have on them and also because we're still really close to their age."
Both the Illinois and Miami programs recruit college women who have faced down serious emotional difficulties. Each program brings the members together to rehearse their stories, learn about mental health issues and benefit from the group support.
Both programs maintain an e-mail address that high school girls may use to follow up the visits with questions. Both programs tend to draw women who are highly accomplished in grades, leadership and athletics.
"People are surprised," says Brie Henry, who launched the Ohio program. "You wouldn't expect these problems from these girls."
Baylor, from the University of Illinois, agrees.
"It surprises me every week to hear an intelligent girl say, 'I used to be a cocaine user,'" Baylor says. "There's a shock value we bring but it works in our favor." For example, a member of her group, a 180-pound, six-foot woman, tells the story of being raped by a man considerably smaller than her.
"These are subjects nobody talks about," says Henry, who battled bulimia and depression secretly but now is open about her struggles. "If you're ever going through something like this, the hardest part is you don't talk about it. Condemning people to silence just makes it worse."
Frank discussions often follow the speakers' presentations. This is when audience members are asked to write anonymous comments or ask questions on note cards. "Is college hard?" one will ask. "Does sex hurt?" another will ask. Group members respond by describing their own experiences or observations, if relevant and appropriate, although they avoid giving specific advice.
"It was good to hear from girls that are older than us," says Kari, a freshman at Kings Mill outside Cincinnati, who did not want to reveal her last name. "It's good they're talking about this stuff . . . My parents don't know what's going on in high school."
Achieving You, in its own way, attempts to narrow the gulf between adolescent and adult worlds. For example, the Miami, Ohio, visits inspired some girls to meet with school counselors or talk to their parents about issues raised in the presentations, says Sue Bryson, the health and physical education teacher who brought the students to Kings.
"The visit prompted conversation," says Bryson, who calls the Miami, Ohio, group a "blessing," because it is nearly impossible for high schools to find young credible speakers on sensitive topics.
"Truth is very important, and kids are not stupid. The reason the young ladies connected to the Miami speakers is they were being truthful," she says. And, she adds, the speakers offer hope by urging girls to get help from family and counselors.
There may be another lesson the speakers offer their audience: that young women can be brave and demonstrate leadership by building bonds with other women.
"I'm glad that people like you are helping to make a difference with young women's lives," one student in the audience wrote after a visit by the Miami group.
"I love the girls," wrote another high school student. "You're amazing, girls. Girls rock!"
Amy DePaul is a free-lance writer and teaches at Miami University of Ohio.
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