Middle school doesn't have to be hell. In Claremont, at least, a new program called We R HOPE helps kids handle school by coaching them on how to handle anxiety and other difficult emotions. The federally-funded program began last March, continues with summer programs, and will extend through the new school year.
By now, most Granite Staters know suicide is the second leading cause of death, after accidental injury, in New Hampshire for individuals age 10 to 34. Suicide and drug overdose deaths in Sullivan County are almost double the national average, and they both stem from untreated mental health issues: depression, anxiety, trauma. The We R HOPE program approaches the mental health crisis by starting with middle school kids, teaching them how to manage these issues in the present.
They don't call it therapy; they call it coaching. The coaches work with kids five days a week, for a half hour at a time, in individual or group sessions. They use cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga, mindfulness, and will soon incorporate suicide prevention training.
Sean Perry and James Reinstein met when they worked at a residential treatment center for boys with severe trauma, and together founded We R HOPE. The new program is just in the beginning stages, and they're hoping to expand to wherever kids need help.
Perry said, “Especially in Claremont, we have kids coming from poverty, coming from places of severe trauma. These kids need to be able to learn how to get through today. Our approach is really geared toward, 'Where are you at right now? What do you believe you can do?' Interestingly enough, a lot of them have never heard that question.
“Because there's a lot of pressure for kids to get from point A to point B to point C to point D, to get work done, but no one's ever even stopped to ask them if they're in a good place to do that. If you're worried about your next meal, how would you ever be focused on math class?”
However, instead of doing a deep dive into past trauma, the coaches work with the kids: can they get through ten minutes of math class? And if they can be successful with that, maybe they can extend it to 15 minutes, then 20, and eventually the whole class.
“There's a lot of trauma. A lot of poverty that's generational, especially in Claremont,” said Perry. “There's a culture of hopelessness; they don't see any way out of their environment, so they think, 'What is the point?' We tell them, if you're living in poverty right now you have no control over that situation, but you can change that. That doesn't have to be your future.”
Perry was a high school athlete. Looking back, he knows he struggled with anxiety – but so did, at one time or another, all the other members of the football team. “There's not one who didn't struggle with significant anxiety issues, but if you asked them, they'd say, 'I'm fine.'”
Now, as a father of five, he has another perspective, and he's sympathetic toward parents who are struggling as well. Instead of blaming parents, these guys focus on day-to-day coping skills.
The kids track their own state of mind using an Anxiety-Anger-Depression scale, measuring how they feel at different times throughout the day. Using that data, the coaches talk with the kids to figure out what's going on. For instance, if a student always feels horrible between fifth and seventh period, the adults may help them identify the cause. It could be the bully in sixth period, or something that happens in the hall.
Reinstein and Perry help the kids advocate for themselves. A kid being bullied in the hallway could get permission to take a different route, or in class the seating could be changed.
Sometimes kids mis-perceive the world; for instance, they may think a teacher hates them. “Because she doesn't say hi to them when they come in, or something similar. We get them to think, what could be another way to look at it? Maybe there's a different reason,” said Perry. “They can write a letter to the teacher explaining their feelings; we've had a lot of success with that.
“It's a complete effort all the way around, with teachers, parents, guidance counselors. We help them to realize the world is not what they see.”
They also have Wesley Walter as their affiliated clinical director in New Hampshire, so when the team finds a student's problems are beyond their scope, they can recommend the next step.
Asked how they measure the success of the program, Reinstein said it goes back to each individual kid. “We tell teachers, 'We don't tell kids to go to class.'”
“Interestingly,” said Perry, “kids do want to go to class. They do want to be in school, they just don't know how, some days.”
“We have a youth that we work with that was suspended from the middle school for some time and still wanted to meet with us,” said Reinstein. “That's success. If we have one kid, one client, that's changing what they're doing and they're [doing better] that filters through to the other kids.”
Asked what is one thing parents and kids should know about mental health, both answer: “Reach out. Get help. You're not alone – kids need to know that.”
Reinstein: “What we're trying to do is educate the youth to reach out for support sooner – before we end up with a bunch of people stuck in an emergency room, with no help and feeling shame.”
-- GLYNIS HART