Abuse. Drugs. Mental health issues.
It’s tough enough for anyone to talk about those problems. It can be even harder for teens facing them for the first time.
That’s why the Health Information Project (HIP) trains high school juniors and seniors to lead freshmen through a year-long health education program. The program is in 37 Miami-Dade public high schools, plus one private school. It has trained more than 1,000 juniors and seniors on how to teach and talk to younger schoolmates about health issues.
“What we’ve realized over the years is that peers can be very persuasive in a positive way and they can influence those that look like them,” said Risa Berrin, who started the program.
The school day is over at North Miami Beach High School. Most students have headed for the doors. But Diamante Sharpe and Erica Poitevien and about a dozen classmates are working on their lesson plans.
“So welcome back to HIP. My name is Diamante,” Sharpe tells the group. “And today is our fourth session – mental health.”
They ask those gathered to clear their desks, pay attention and offer constructive criticism to classmates to help them teach the material better.
Over the course of the year, students teach eight lessons and lead discussions.
HIP starts off with relationships before moving into mental and reproductive health, and exercise and obesity. The year finishes with nutrition.
For North Miami Beach High School students, HIP is the only health education they get – the school eliminated its health class.
The program has a few key ground rules.
“We are not medical professionals," Poitevien reminds the HIP instructors. "Therefore we can not give out medical advice. If you have questions go to the HIP website.”
For medical advice, they point classmates to doctors, the health clinics at many school campuses or other professionals able to give more informed advice. They let students know if they might be eligible for a government-subsidized health insurance plan, like Obamacare or Florida KidCare.
What’s said in the classroom usually stays in the classroom – unless students might be in danger.
Berrin says students give out facts, not advice – and they take the lessons home with them.
“These students are making better health decisions,” she says, “not only for themselves, but they’re making better decisions on behalf of their family members, their friends. They’re disseminating this information back at home and in their communities.”
Programs like HIP are important, says Deb Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, a Washington D.C.-based health advocacy group, primarily focused on reproductive education, because health education is a lower priority for many schools.
“Because they don’t test in health, you don’t see a heavy emphasis on this subject matter,” Hauser says. “And yet they can be very, very key to young people’s success, both academically and as they move through their lives.”
Hauser says health education should start in elementary school -- not lessons about sex and drugs, but making friends and taking care of yourself.
HIP started with two Miami high schools. Now that it’s in every public high school in Miami-Dade County, the plan now is to hire more professionals to help the students do this kind of work.
Hauser says there’s not a lot of of research showing that teenagers learn more from their peers. But they don’t seem to learn less either.
And teens who lead health programs like HIP seem to get as much or more out of it as those they coach.
“They see themselves as leaders,” Hauser says. “The change that comes as being part of a peer education program has a very strong impact, not only on their sense of themselves but then on their behaviors.”
North Miami Beach junior Katerina Perdomo is a HIP student health educator. She says she’s much more comfortable leading lessons.
“I’m not really that shy but I know when I get really nervous when speaking in front of a crowd,” Perdomo says. “And now, it’s like a piece of cake. I can go up there and I can tell them, ‘Hey, this is what’s up. And this is what you should do,’ and it’s really easy for me now.”
Junior Natalie Coto says she was uncomfortable talking about the subjects included in the HIP lessons.
“I wasn’t used to talking about things like sex and drugs and stuff that was going on. Especially since I was younger, so, like, we didn’t really talk about that.”
Coto thinks she’s found the courage – and wisdom – to step in if a classmate needs support.
“Even though people are going through things,” she says, “you can always talk to them about it. You might not be able to do the most heroic thing for their lives, but you can still help them get through it. That’s really important.”