This week, our Peer Mentors presented at Medford High School, O’Maley Innovation Middle School in Gloucester, Devens School in Everett, and Revere High School. We are so thankful to have connected with over 250 students this week!
Peer Mentor Aiden DeCaro collaborates with Amy Kerr on “I Am More Collection”
We are so excited to share a new piece in Amy Kerr’s “I Am More” collection made in collaboration with our Peer Mentor Aiden!
Even though it is not the case now, I am no stranger to feeling less than. A lifetime of dealing with the fallout of mental illness has left me with many moments I’ve felt hollow or broken. Now though, a few years into genuine recovery, I can finally say I know what it’s like to feel whole. It’s been a long journey with a lot of ups and downs that I’m still on today, but I can say with certainty that I have found hope and peace through my symptoms.
My first experience struggling with my mental health was in elementary school when I began feeling paralyzing stress that made it difficult to stay in class. Up until this point, I enjoyed school. I loved learning new things and was excited even then to attend college in what seemed like a lifetime away. Through school I discovered my passion for drawing and delighted in all opportunities it gave me to be creative. Art class was always the highlight of my week. Even with all that I liked about school, I began feeling sick during classes. Constant nausea followed me throughout social situations, a lead ball churning in my stomach and chest that left me scared and choking on my words. By 6th grade I was regularly attending therapy, where I learned that this feeling had a name: social anxiety.
My diagnosis left me conflicted. On one hand, it was a relief to know there was a reason I felt this way, that maybe it could be treated and I wouldn’t be stuck in this constant state of fight or flight forever. On the other, it felt sort of hopeless. I spent so much time trying to figure out what caused me to feel this way, and to find out that it was something inherent to me made me feel broken. I searched for the rationality behind it, only to learn that anxiety disorders are, by nature, often irrational. My anxiety did not listen to reason, even as it was named and attempted to be treated. Instead, it spiraled as my symptoms worsened into depression.
At age 12 I was hospitalized for the first time after expressing suicidal ideation to a school counselor. I felt overwhelmed by everything in my life to the point of wishing I could just disappear from it. This began years of being in and out of mental health counseling. Therapists, hospitals, and partial programs all began blurring together as I spent weeks at a time away from home and school. New diagnoses began cluttering paperwork handed from hospital to hospital. Generalized anxiety, treatment-resistant depression, and PTSD all became facets of my identity. Every treatment seemed to have merit for a short time, but almost all made little progress in alleviating my symptoms long-term.
In the uncertain gaps between treatments, my grades suffered and my mornings were almost always a struggle between my mom and I over whether I would get out of bed and attend school. When I did attend classes, I didn’t have trouble with academics, even acting as a tutor to younger students at one point. Even though I knew I was capable of passing, I began failing most of my classes as middle school progressed. Over and over my teachers would ask me with pity why I wasn’t applying myself, and over and over I felt I had no answer for them. I felt as though I was trapped in a fish bowl, my family and teachers standing outside and telling me to swim up as I just laid down and drowned. Accommodations were put in place but ultimately proved fruitless as I spent most days out of class, even on the ones I dragged myself to school.
Throughout all of this though, drawing remained a constant for me. Whether at home or using supplies that had to be locked up at the end of the night in hospitals, I would draw how I felt. At this time, much of my art felt dark. Everything in my life felt out of control, including my thoughts, but art gave me an outlet to express them healthily. Many of my drawings depicted figures adorned in pink and purple marker bruises, something I can now read into as expressing my feeling of being broken.
I felt like a wounded animal, one that not only stood no chance of keeping up with my peers but who also lashed out and behaved inappropriately out of fear. Frequent meltdowns made it hard to make friends and pushed me even further into the feeling of isolation as the gaps between hospital programs became shorter and shorter. At some points, I would spend more time away from home than in it.
All of this is to say, my permanent withdrawal from school at age 15 did not come as a surprise. Though still plagued by frequent panic attacks and depressive episodes, I was hopeful that without the stress of school I would finally be able to fully devote myself to treatment. It was around this time that I was able to name a source of grief that had been contributing to my instability for years: a period of grooming and sexual assault that had occurred when I was 13. A weight was lifted off my chest as I was finally able to receive trauma-specific therapy. For the first time, it felt that things were looking up, therapy was working and I began to enjoy parts of life again. Another source of hope was that soon I would be old enough to begin a program working towards my GED, a representation of a new beginning in my mind.
In March 2020, I turned 16 a week into lockdown. Cautious optimism toward a new beginning turned again into hopelessness as my GED program announced it would be fully closed until COVID-19 case numbers dropped. The last few months of my life had been spent at home, largely inside, and almost always alone. I didn’t mind this at first, especially when I was fresh out of school and didn’t have to deal with the associated social pressure. This isolation was intended to be temporary though, having a specific end that was not far out of reach. I was looking forward to the change that was coming in my life and was now being told that everything was going to remain as it had, friendless, isolated, and stuck. Long gone were the dreams of college that I had during my childhood, I was sure I had no future.
I spent New Year’s of 2021 three weeks into a month-long hospitalization after a suicide attempt. The alone time I had so desperately craved during my time in school proved itself hopeless rather than peaceful. I could not imagine my life moving forward and was resigned to feeling burdensome, friendless, and miserable. Even after my discharge that month, I felt unable to see a happy future. I would spend almost every night sneaking out of my house around midnight, feeling as though I would suffocate if I spent any more time inside. I would wander through the streets of my hometown, snow falling softly and silently around me. I wondered why I had spent so much time inside when there was so much beauty around me. I would sit on the docks and look out to the water, thinking for the first time, there is so much more than this.
The next day I attended a group at a local teen center, one that had recently reopened as the pandemic’s current effect began to lessen. Anxious and still contemplating this decision as I opened the door, I sat down and introduced myself. I did not expect this to be my new beginning, I had learned not to get my hopes up about things changing, but sometimes things change for the good as rapidly as they tend to devolve. I spent that night at the docks, snow still falling silently but this time it swirled around more than just myself. I was invited out by a group of teenagers my age who had known each other for far longer than I had kept any friends. We kept in touch over the coming months and for the first time in my life, I felt true belonging.
This belonging brought hope and change, a certainty that even if these friends weren’t forever, they were here now and they were out there. By definition, giving up hope makes it seem like finding hope will be much harder than it often is. I learned that there is always a path forward, there is always a new beginning, and that there truly is more out there than you may be expecting. I’m still close with the friends I made that day, and I will always be grateful for their role in teaching me this lesson. By the time my 17th birthday came that March, my life felt so distant from what it had been just a year ago. I spent that night sharing cake with my friends and feeling more grateful than they will ever know.
A lot has changed since that night when I first found true hope. Along with new social support, I’ve found meaningful treatment through therapy and medication that I consider life-saving. I’m 19 now and have since graduated from my GED program, even having the opportunity to present a speech at our graduation. I have since spent time interning at the same access center, YOUnity Drop In Center in Gloucester, MA, that completely changed my life just a few years ago, running therapeutic art groups for teenagers that I often saw a younger version of myself in. I’m proud to now work at a mental health awareness and suicide prevention organization, The NAN Project. There I use my lived experiences to help inspire middle and high schoolers through their own challenges. I am excited to begin my freshman year of college this fall, where I’ll be majoring in psychology. I have found purpose through helping others and hope to become a therapist and advocate for mental health community services to further this goal.
My passion for art has persisted as maybe the one true constant throughout my life, and I am happy to still be drawing and painting today. Even now I find it easier to express myself through creativity than anything else. Today my style is an amalgamation of every style it has taken to express my past emotions, as well as ones I find when navigating new ones.
It has taken a long time and a lot of pain to be where I am now, and I know I will never be completely rid of my symptoms, but I finally feel that I am so much more than my diagnoses and the years I spent battling them. I am more than the nights I spent hopeless and feeling trapped in my own head. I am more than I used to be because my experiences have built me into the person I am today. Through my past, I have learned compassion, determination, and a firm belief that there is always hope in dark times. I am a friend, a family member, a leader, an artist, and now strive to be a source of hope.
“Aiden” by Amy Kerr and Aiden DeCaro, 2023. Colored pencil and acrylic on paper, 24x34in.
May 31, 2023
Mental Health Leadership Institute Conference
Today Jake and Karla presented at the Mental Health Leadership Institute Conference at the Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical School!
May 26, 2023
Mental Health Fair Tablings
This week, we had the pleasure of tabling at a mental health fair in Brockton sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health and BAMSI, as well fairs at North Andover High School, Greater Lawrence Technical School, and Methuen High School. It was great to talk about our work with those who visited our table, as well as reconnect with some of the team that helped us recruit for our peer mentor training at Massasoit Community College!
May 24, 2023
Presentation at Youth At Risk Conference
Today, Jake and Karla presented at the Youth At Risk Conference at Endicott College about the kinds of mental health questions we receive from students at schools and how best to respond. Thank you to everyone who came out to support us!
May 23, 2023
TNP Provides New Student Supports
The NAN Project is proud to offer a new program to the community, SEL Circles (Social-Emotional Learning Circles). It is a six-week, in-school, curriculum-based program made for groups of up to 15 students. The program is supported by The NAN Project’s licensed mental health clinician/school counselor, Peer Coordinators, and Peer Mentors.
Sarojini Schutt, Peer Coordinator, facilitating a discussion at Galvin Middle School SEL Circles about managing peer conflict
SEL Circles were created due to community providers, educators, and parents noticing changes in the youth they serve–many are more anxious than prior to the pandemic, and have had trouble creating connections with their peers, and looking for programming that could be helpful.
Recent Statistics About Youth Mental Health:
Recent data supports what educators and caregivers have noticed. The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey collects self-reported surveys from high school students across the United States every two years. The most recent data from 2021 shows that compared to 2019, more high school students are feeling sad or hopeless in a way that impairs their everyday activities (33.8% vs 38.5%), and more students seriously considered attempting suicide (17.5% vs 18.4%). Additionally, out of all US high school students surveyed in 2021, 29.3% reported their mental health was either not good most of the time or not good all of the time, and 38.5% reported they either didn’t feel close to people at their school or weren’t sure.
SEL Circles Curriculum:
SEL Circles are designed to help middle school- and high school-aged youth gain a greater understanding of the warning signs of mental health challenges, the supports that are available to them, ways to help a friend who may be struggling, and coping strategies to deal with their mental health. SEL Circles are not a substitute for or form of therapy. The goal of SEL Circles is to create a safe place where kids can gather and learn new skills related to emotional regulation, active listening, and coping strategies through a trauma-informed lens. By the end of the six week program, youth will have learned more about mental health and how to identify, communicate, and express emotions in a healthy way. The curriculum is offered in a format that is fun, educational, and appealing for students who can benefit from a little extra social-emotional support.
The topics covered in SEL Circles curriculum may include Orientation & Connection, Building Self-Esteem, Managing Reactions to Stress, Mindfulness, Active Listening, Bound
Galvin Middle School students participating in SEL Circles provided colorful feedback.
ary Setting/Managing Peer Conflict, and Reflection & Application. Educators and staff who would like to bring SEL Circles to their school will have the opportunity to discuss the needs of their students with The NAN Project’s School Counselor, Liza Tierney, and tailor the curriculum as needed.
Response From Students:
To date, The NAN Project has facilitated three cohorts of SEL Circles, at the Eliot Family Resource Center in Everett and at Galvin Middle School in Wakefield. The NAN Project staff collected survey data from SEL Circles participants on the first session and on the last session to learn more about what youth are taking away from sessions.
At Galvin Middle School before SEL Circles began, only 50% of the participants self-reported that they knew of coping skills to deal with difficult emotions. On the last day of the program, 80% of students either agreed or strongly agreed that they knew of coping skills to help with difficult emotions. There was also an increase in the pre- and post- survey data regarding the percentage of students who reported they had at least one adult they could speak to about a difficult situation (83% on the first day, compared to 100% on the last day).
When asked what they learned at SEL Circles, students said:
“Conflict doesn’t always have to be negative.”
“I learned good ways to cope with anger and stress”
On the most useful thing youth learned at SEL Circles:
“The 3 Rs [Regulation, Reflection, and Relaxation].”
“How to calm yourself and also that your [sic] not alone.”
“Learning about stress management.”
“That not being OK is OK when you ask for help.”
“I know many things to do when I am sad.”
This spring, The NAN Project is excited to be providing SEL Circles at Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Lynn and Phoenix Academy in Lawrence, in addition to continuing their partnership with Galvin Middle School. To discuss bringing SEL Circles to your school or community, email [email protected].
Our First College Peer Mentor Training & A Peer Mentor Update
Thanks to grant funding from the MA Department of Higher Education, we recently conducted our first college peer mentor training at Massasoit Community College (MCC) in Brockton, MA. This training not only marked a significant milestone for us, but also was a great success. With the collaboration of Violet Akoh, MCC’s Health & Wellness Coordinator, and the leadership of Erica Tangney, TNP’s College Outreach Coordinator, we engaged numerous students through on-campus outreach, ultimately training six new peer mentors. This partnership with Massasoit has opened doors for us to expand our programming into Massachusetts’ Southeast Region.
Successful Peer Mentor Training:
During the training at MCC, our team provided instruction on how to write a Comeback Story, enhance and practice their public speaking skills, and ways to safely speak to youth about mental health. By the end of training, each student had written a powerful story of lived experience. The NAN Project is immensely proud of these peer mentors and all the work they put into the training!
Peer Mentors and TNP Staff at Massasoit CC Training Graduation.
Following the training program at Massasoit CC, we have continued efforts to expand our network of peer mentors. An additional four peer mentors have completed our training and have already started attending presentations! We continually hire peer mentors on a rolling basis in order to bring as many presentations to students as possible.
Upcoming Training in Lynn, MA:
As we continue to expand our outreach efforts, we are excited to share that our staff is actively preparing for another training. This time, we will be hosting a training program in Lynn, MA over the summer. We have many community and school partners in the Greater Lynn area. By hiring more peer mentors, we hope to provide more robust programming to Lynn public schools and to strengthen these relationships.
Our Newest Peer Mentor Cohort and TNP Staff.
We are so grateful for MCC and all the peer mentors who work with us. We look forward to holding many more peer mentor training opportunities in the community or in institutions of higher education! For information about our partnerships with colleges and universities, contact Erica at [email protected]. If you are interested in the peer mentor role, please contact Shilpa at sthirukkovalur@thenanproject.
Presentations to Medford High School
For the past two days, our peer mentors have presented at Medford High School and it was great to be back!
May 19, 2023
First Presentations at Christa McAuliffe Charter School
Today, our peers presented for the first time to Christa McAuliffe Charter School in Framingham for their mental health awareness fair. We appreciate their efforts to highlight mental health this month!
This week our team had the pleasure of exhibiting at the 22nd Annual Massachusetts Suicide Prevention Conference. We were grateful to connect with the familiar faces and learn more about best practices in suicide prevention from all who presented!