East Orange, NJ: Social Work Professor Juan Rios and Dr. Jamila T. Davis, Community Practitioner in Residence for Seton Hall’s Center for Community Research and Engagement, were honored by the City of East Orange for their work in bringing the innovative Mental Health Peer Coaching program to high school students. Rios and Davis conducted the program with the help of Dr. Kelly Williams, the Director of Educational Support Services and Parent Relations for the East Orange School District.
The program was initiated in 2021 as part of the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training’s Summer Work Experience Program (SWEP), which is spearheaded by Manager LaDonna Johns. It is designed to teach students how to develop coping skills, how to meditate, mediate and “push past” difficult situations – including some of the challenging emotional issues that were brought on or escalated by the pandemic. The students were also taught how to teach these skills to their peers in anticipation of the return to full in-class instruction for the then upcoming school year.
“This cutting-edge program was created to proactively address the underlying mental health issues that were hitting our students the hardest, some for the very first time,” said East Orange Mayor Ted Green. “Historically, as a community, we tend to gravitate toward the notion that seeking help for mental health is a sign of weakness. Through this program, we’ve flipped that notion and empowered our students to take command of their mental health, use what they have learned to help others, and ultimately build a stronger East Orange.”
Eight students received full certification as Mental Health Peer Coaches in the first cohort and were employed during the course of the school year to help their fellow students successfully transition back into “school life” and find the resilience and support they need to get through difficult times.
“We honor Dr. Rios and Dr. Davis because this program has been a success,” said East Orange School District Superintendent AbdulSaleem Hasan. “During the course of the school year, our Mental Health Peer Coaches worked with their classmates, one-on-one and in groups, to get our kids reacclimated, readjusted and revitalized. We need more of this in East Orange – and throughout the state.”
The students, known as Mental Health Ambassadors in their respective schools, now number 27 with plans to further expand the program throughout the school district in the coming year.
The students, the program and its teachers were officially commended by the East Orange City Council and Mayor Green, who was in attendance at the ceremony held at City Hall.
“This Mental Health Peer-to-Peer Training for high school students – paid for their efforts – is new,” said Professor Rios. “I wish I could say it was my idea, but as is the case so often, the people closest to the problem were closest to the solution. The students themselves proposed this program. They said they benefited so greatly from the mental health and resiliency program run by Dr. Davis in the spring that they wanted to make the teachings available to their fellow students. What’s clear now is that the idea was a good one and the program is working to the point that it makes all the sense in the world to expand.”
Superintendent Hasan began “summer” enrichment programs in the district in the spring to “get a head start” on mitigating the learning losses due to the pandemic. He approved the expanded program after students in the initial mental health and resiliency class approached him in a virtual conference pleading for a continuation of the program – and for more formalized training in the field so they could become Mental Health Peer Coaches. Taken by the overwhelmingly positive response and initiative of the students, Hasan not only approved the program, but also invited a number of the students in attendance to become part of his Student Advisory Council for the Superintendent. The Council is currently working on a number of other student-led initiatives.
“I’d like to thank Superintendent Hasan, the East Orange City Council and East Orange Mayor Ted Green,” said Dr. Davis. “They had the vision to see the benefit of this program and the wisdom to invest in these kids through the Mayor’s Summer Work Experience Program and beyond. I’m privileged to have witnessed these students learn how to cope with adversity and turn an L into a W; I am blessed to have witnessed them teach others to do the same.”