The Peer Helpers program at Hastings High is getting students talking about their problems — to one another.
Last year was a tough one for students and staff at Hastings High School.
First, a student died in a car accident, and in the following weeks, two students and an older resident committed suicide. A recent graduate died suddenly, too. Counselors were brought in to help students deal with their emotions and to talk about depression and mental illness in general.
“There was a lot of grief,” said school counselor Kim Hoff. “It was a stressful time and it was a sad time, and it affected everyone.”
This year, the school has turned over a new leaf, starting a program to train students to help their peers talk openly about family, academic and mental health issues.
Hoff was instrumental in bringing the program, called Peer Helpers, to Hastings. She saw it “work really well” at Hudson High School in Wisconsin, where she worked previously, and now serves as a Peer Helpers adviser.
Peer Helpers curriculum and training are provided by Hazelden, the addiction treatment center. The program kicked off two months ago with a retreat, where 20 students in grades nine through 12 were trained in “basic helping skills,” Hoff said.
Their biggest task as Peer Helpers, though, isn’t to solve problems or act like a school counselor — it’s simply to listen.
“Research shows that in 90 percent of cases, students talk to their friends first,” said Michael Kaul, a trainer with Hazelden who ran the retreat for Hastings students.
‘We have a lot of diversity’
Peer Helpers were chosen based on teacher and counselor recommendations, and care was taken to get a mix of students, Hoff said.
Students selected were “already the kids that students went to with their problems, in an informal way,” Hoff said.
“We have a lot of diversity — music kids, sports kids, straight-A kids and a lot of different personalities,” said Taylor Wickberg, a senior Peer Helper.
In the program’s first three weeks, students had 120 sessions with helpers, and there were 127 interactions in November, Hoff said.
Thus far, “It’s gone exceedingly well,” Hoff said. “We’re really feeling hope and positivity this year.”
Mike Johnson, principal at Hastings High School, sees the program as a piece of a long-term effort to address students’ mental health needs. Starting Peer Helpers wasn’t in direct response to the suicides, but the tragedies provided a “critical piece” in motivating the school to do more, he said.
Kids today are struggling with many pressures, from academic, family and relationship problems to chemical health issues, depression, anxiety or eating disorders, Hoff said.
“[Students] are presenting more and more complex personal and mental health issues than they have in the past,” Johnson said. “And you could talk to any principal in Minnesota and they would tell you the same thing.”
School counselors are an important part of helping students, but often there just aren’t enough to go around. Minnesota typically ranks 49th out of 50 states in terms of its high school student-to-counselor ratios, he said. Hastings has four school counselors and one school psychologist serving 1,400 students.