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Sources of Strength helping Newton students find mental wellness
Participants in the Sources of Strength program at Alcovy High School are shown. - photo by Courtesy of the Newton County School System

COVINGTON, Ga. — Sources of Strength is telling students it is OK to reach out for help if needed to deal with everything from bullying to suicidal thoughts.

"The goal we're trying to push is wellness," said Sources of Strength coordinator Chiquita Perry-Owens.

Sources of Strength is an "evidence-based prevention program that empowers peer leaders and adult advisors in their schools to break codes of silence of mental health and promote help-seeking behaviors and resource connections with suicide prevention, anxiety, substance abuse, violence, bullying and peer pressure," Perry said.

It seeks to raise "awareness and creates resiliency in students" by encouraging students to seek out "protective factors" including family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, mental health and medical access.

"(It) is a tool for promoting positive school-wide attitudes about seeking help for problems, breaking codes of silence, and involving supportive resources and assistance for students in emotional crisis," the school system website stated. 

Perry said students of all races and income levels suffer from mental health issues and may do so for any number of reasons. 

Past or current trauma, peer pressure, and drug and alcohol abuse may trigger mental health episodes, she said. Young people may respond with anger, anxiety, depression or feelings of hopelessness, she said.

Perry said a student may begin to deal with mental health issues as early as elementary school. However, many students often believe they should not disclose any mental health issues they are suffering because of the "negative connotations" of doing so. 

Many parents also do not know how accessible mental health care can be in the school system, she said.

The mental health program uses student peer leaders and adult advisors to help students in six schools, including Newton, Alcovy and Eastside high schools and Veterans, Liberty and Cousins middle schools.

"Peer leaders leverage their social influence, talents, networking and skills to promote positive changes in their school climate through activities, trainings, group discussions, awareness campaigns, social media and art," Perry said.    

"We equip students with different tools," she said.

Between 20 and 50 students serve as peer leaders in each school, Perry said. 

One of those peer leaders, Newton High School student Chelsea Williams, 14, said she believes students take such matters as suicide "very seriously" and need someone to talk with.

"You can save someone's life," Chelsea said.

Peer leaders also organize or propose their own programs, such as participating in a flash mob event at a basketball game, to spread the word about the program.

In the past, they have organized a "Name a Trusted Adult" campaign,  a community wellness resource fair, a "Stress Free Day," and a family movie night. 

For National Suicide Prevention Month in September, Perry said Sources of Strength program participants took part in an “I Am Stronger” challenge to raise mental health awareness and resiliency in their schools.

Perry, who is also a Newton County Schools' school climate specialist. said students from Newton and Alcovy high schools took part in the event in which they shared stories of "strength" by identifying any of the "protective factors" they found helpful for getting them through tough times.

Newton High School adult advisors Tommie Gregory and Demetrice Perry-Stokes and Alcovy High adult advisors Chris Williams and Justin Hunter built wall display platforms for peer leaders and students "to share personal stories of hope, help and strength."  Newton High won the challenge by collecting a total of 453 entries, Perry said. 

Sources of Strength originated in 2014 with a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency to the Georgia Department of Education. 

The education department then chose Newton, Muscogee and Spalding counties' school systems "to provide training in 'Youth Mental Health First Aid' and to develop processes and procedures for connecting youth and families to community-based mental health services," according to information from the department.  

After the grant ended in 2019, NCSS continued operating the programs developed under the grant, including Sources of Strength Suicide Prevention and Youth Mental Health First Aid, Perry said.  

Chelsea said her involvement in Sources of Strength prompted one of her friends to call her directly about issues the friend was having.

She said she was glad to be someone students know they can talk with who is around their own age, she said.

Perry is the coordinator of Sources of Strength, and coordinator and trainer for two other programs called the Teen Mental Health and Youth Mental Health First Aid programs, all of which operate within the NCSS Department of Students & Family Support.

She said Youth Mental Health First Aid is a separate component in its student service department because it focuses on training adults — parents, administrators, relatives, mentors, community outreach and others — on what signs and symptoms to look for when a child may be experiencing a mental health crisis.  

Her department also is preparing to implement a pilot program called Teen Mental Health First Aid Training for Newton High School students (10th to 12th grades) starting next week, where 650 students will receive a similar training that is more condensed and student appropriate, she said.