Growing up, many of us can recall an excruciating moment when an adult made an attempt to educate us on drugs, sex or alcohol.  Often they were our teachers and parents.  Although these are important issues teens should know about, the conversations usually felt forced and sometimes even anxiety provoking. It’s not that the information wasn’t accurate or needed; it was simply uncomfortable, which made it hard to hear.

The fact of the matter is when you are a teenager the only people you truly believe understand you are your peers. For many teens, you are much more likely to seek counsel from your friends or older siblings than an adult.  And, developmentally, this is both healthy and normal.

Erika’s Lighthouse has taken this developmental truth and put it into action through a peer-to-peer program model.  What would it be like if we had teens teaching teens about important issues like depression and mental health?  It was this question that initiated the Teen Panel program.

The Teen Panel program consists of a trained group of high school students who act as mental health educators and advocates in their school by sharing true stories of depression with other students. The stories represent many types of teens and situations: being an athlete with depression, being a friend to someone with depression, and what depression treatment is like, to name a few. The panelists also share information about how to get help and let their peers know that this is a very real, common, and serious disease, but nothing to be ashamed of.

Erika’s Lighthouse utilizes this peer-to-peer approach, not only because it is developmentally appropriate, but because there is evidence of its effectiveness.

A teen speaking candidly about what was previously unspeakable models a positive attitude about mental illness and breaks stigma. Through the context of stories from peers that others can relate to, Advocates for Youth say that the peer recipients are more likely to engage in a dynamic conversation about the topic. In addition, teens are more likely to ask questions following the education than if it was led by an adult.

Advocates for Youth also indicate that teens are more likely to hear and internalize messages if it comes from a peer, or someone in a similar life position. It is a common occurrence, after a panel presentation, that a teen will approach a teacher or school social worker about themselves or a friend. Often the message of the program resonated with that particular participant and they are compelled to seek help or act on what they learned from the peer-led presentation.

But, the benefits don’t end with the program recipients. Peer-to-peer teaching models are also incredibly beneficial for teen instructors. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that a large protective factor for reducing teen risk-taking behavior is deep involvement in a school-based activity. Studies also indicate that teaching peers can increase self-esteem. And, because all of the teen instructors receive training on mental health and public speaking, Advocates for Youth suggests that these teens are developing valuable communication, leadership, and advocacy skills.

Many schools are hesitant to allow their teens to teach other teens. Some are concerned that this method may require more time and energy. Some are fearful to talk about mental health at all due to stigma. However, with the right training and supervision, the benefits of this dynamic program style are immeasurable both in terms of what it provides to the student recipients and educators. It builds a safe environment to talk about mental health, and for many schools, a shift in the cultural paradigm. When teens are given permission to utilize their incredible capabilities and rally around an issue like mental health, it creates a positive experience for everyone.