SOUTHERN RHODE ISLAND – In the age of social distancing and virtual learning, while many are craving human connection, discussions around mental health awareness and education have never been more important. 

In Narragansett and South Kingstown, students are the ones leading the charge to help connect their fellow classmates to resources and removing the stigma around mental health, thanks to the Peer-to-Peer Program.

This critical, student-led initiative has had an incredible ripple effect on young adults and adolescents, thanks to the work of the Chris Collins Foundation and the University of Michigan. 

Two years ago, a few days after Chris Collins, 20, of South Kingstown, lost his long battle with mental illness, his family worked to establish a foundation to educate others and remove the stigmas surrounding mental health.

“He had struggled for about three years with depression and anxiety, and it was amazing to us how his friends all wrote about how he was the person they all turned to when they were struggling or had tough times that they were dealing with,” Chris’ father, Mark Collins, said. “It became clear to us that we really wanted to continue what Chris had started, as far as helping other people.”

In the time since, Collins said they’ve received feedback from clinicians, emergency rooms and therapists that were able to provide help to patients in need because of referral through the Peer-to-Peer Program, or because they personally knew Chris and the struggles he faced. 

“It’s really about getting students to talk to one another, to open up to one another, to learn enough about mental illness in order to be able to refer friends to a trusted adult, if needed,” Collins said. “It’s a lot of things, and it’s great to hear from current students who are excited to be back.” 

“There’s definitely a ripple effect going on,” he added. “The program is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do – getting people to talk about mental health, it’s teaching people, and it’s getting people to get help earlier than they might have.”

Although the opportunities for outreach and education look a little bit different this year, students involved with the Peer-to-Peer Program are eager to continue sharing messages around mental health. Vehicles for education may have changed, but the work is incredibly important. 

According to Sarah Laidler, a student assistance counselor in Narragansett, the ripple effects of last year’s wellness week are still being felt. Thankfully, programs and outreach were able to take place during the very last week of in-person learning last year, Laidler said, and students were able to become resources to their friends and fellow classmates. 

“I just want to thank Mark and his family for doing such an amazing job in such a short amount of time, and bringing this message to so many people,” she said during a Zoom video chat on Tuesday afternoon. “I think so many people struggle with how to do that, and the fact that you’re willing to do that for us, we’re really grateful.” 

SK Wellness Director of Development Sonia Lacombe said what she loves most about this programing is that it’s truly student centered and led. The students themselves become the resources for their fellow classmates.

Narragansett High School sophomore Lauren Manton said her experience with the group has not only allowed her to help her fellow peers, but also be a better friend. 

Manton said that through their efforts and programming, the Collins Family has already helped more people than they know.

“I personally have people who can text me all the time, and through this program I’ve been so much more prepared to talk to them and help them,” Manton said.

Recent South Kingstown High School graduate Calin Fairbrother said she’s also been extremely thankful for her time in the Peer-to-Peer Program, and that it continues to serve her to this day.

“In high school, it was a huge shock going from crowded hallways to sitting alone in a room all day,” Fairbrother said. “Having those Zoom meetings with Peer-to-Peer every week was always the highlight, so I’m glad to see it’s continuing, whether in person or virtually.”

“When we went virtual in the spring, it was really difficult to feel like we were reaching students in the same aspect,” she added. “When we were in person, we had more of a presence in their everyday life. We had posters all around the school with our campaigns. We could make announcements over the loudspeakers that would reach the whole school.”

When everything went virtual in the spring, the group's primary vehicle for connecting with other students became social media platforms, like Instagram. Despite only being able to get their message out in virtual posts, the South Kingstown group continued to meet with one another every week, according to Fairbrother, to brainstorm the best possible ways to safely bring the community together.

That culminated in the school’s virtual open mic night, which not only welcomed current students but alumni as well.

“In ways, we were a little less connected, but in other ways, we were able to connect more and bring more of the community into our Peer -to-Peer program,” she said, “which was really great.”

Between each performance, members came out and provided highlights and facts for the audience about mental health awareness and resources. 

This year, SK Wellness Outreach Coordinator and school committee member Kate Macinanti said the focus has been around engaging younger students to be a part of this important work too, which can be difficult considering the school year began virtually. 

“It’s great to see people’s faces and be able to read their facial expressions, but nothing compares to actual, in-person connections,” Macinanti said. “I see that as a huge struggle for the adults and mostly the kids.”

Engaging students virtually and trying to get them to join another Google Classroom after spending the majority of their day doing so is difficult enough, never mind the obstacles around maybe not having a friend to try these new clubs and experiences out with.

“From my purview, it’s just harder,” Macinanti said. “When we were in-person, when we were in the building – we’re in the library, we’re in the hallways – and we can tap someone on the shoulder and say, ‘Come on with us!’”

“That initial crossing the threshold to join the group, I think, is going to be that much harder,” she added. “You don’t have a friend holding your hand and literally pulling you in.”

Younger students are stepping up and working to fill leadership roles, according to Lacombe, and while they continue to work on recruitment, current Peer-to-Peer members continue their important work around mental health awareness. 

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