Sound the alarm
Students today face stressors we never could have imagined in the past – vaping, social media pressure, increased unrealistic body representations, online bullying, epidemics of opioid addiction, shootings in schools – the list goes on.
In addition to these pre-existing challenges, the pandemic has upended the lives of our children.
In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) declared a national state of emergency for children’s mental health. United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy’s public health advisory, released in December 2021, said the pandemic and its impact on the mental health of children, adolescents, and young adults was “devastating.”
The mental health crisis is nothing new
While it is important for the AAP and Surgeon General Murthy to sound the alarm on the mental health crisis, it is essential that we respond to the emergency.
For the past 13 years, this mental health crisis has already been addressed in Miami-Dade County public schools through a program called Health Information Project (HIP).
As Miami-based Founder and Executive Director of HIP, I’m proud to have partnered with Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who helped make health education a local priority.
HIP is revolutionizing health education: Unlike traditional adult-led high school health classes, we use high school students as health educators. Instead of adults using outdated textbooks, cheesy videos and scare tactics, HIP is innovative, scientific and relevant. Our mission is to ensure that all children are physically and emotionally safe and healthy.
In 2009, HIP became the first and remains the only comprehensive peer-to-peer health education program for high school students in the country. Since its inception, we have trained more than 12,500 Grade 11 and 12 HIP “peer health educators,” who have taught more than 260,000 Grade 9 students.
Our program is implemented during the school day and reaches all grade 9 students in a school. HIP partners with 55 public high schools in Miami-Dade, in addition to Gulliver, Ransom, Riviera, and Cushman private schools.
We also recently expanded to other Florida schools in Broward, Monroe, and Pinellas counties.
Transforming the archaic model of secondary school health education
HIP covers critical topics like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, abuse and obesity – and its peer-to-peer model creates a safe space for discussion, so kids feel less alone . (Studies show adolescents are more likely to change their thinking and behaviors through health messages from their peers.) And in schools offering HIP programs, students continue to report that they prefer these topics to be taught by children of their age.
The Surgeon General’s report presented a series of recommendations to improve the mental health of young people, including supporting mental health in schools.
Miami already has a head start.
Addressing Learning loss
Many educators have expressed concern over “learning loss” due to the pandemic. However, it is crucial to understand that we cannot improve academic performance if we do not address the physical and emotional stressors and distractions in students’ lives.
We’re doing it in South Florida, and other school districts should follow our lead.
As a product of Miami-Dade County Public Schools and a graduate of Miami Palmetto Senior High School, I couldn’t be more proud of my school district and my hometown.
ORGANIC: Risa Berrin is the founder and executive director of Health Information Project (HIP), a Miami-based nonprofit that is revolutionizing health education by turning high school students into health teachers, with a mission to ensure that all children are physically and emotionally safe and healthy. To learn more, please visit www.behip.org
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