Peer education is a method of information dissemination used in many public health initiatives. When a target population is in need of information that is deemed essential to maintain health, it is a well-documented fact that they are most likely to seek information and believe facts given to them by peers. So while we would like to think our youth would go to a teacher or parent with questions related to making healthy choices, in fact they are likely to base decisions on information they get from friends. If a community is trying to reduce a target behavior, say the number of new HIV cases, they will target information about needle exchange to members of the community who are in fact already drug users. These people are more effective in spreading the word on safe practices than health care workers who may be ignored. In our community, we know that to reduce risky behaviors among our youth, educating a core group of youth about specific topics will plant the seeds of information that will be shared within the group, and have more impact than a dozen lectures or public service announcements.
The YSB’s Peer Educator program started two years ago with a focus group of youth from the middle and high schools. They met with us to develop a list of the topics they felt were of concern to the youth of our community. We took these topics and developed a series of one-to-two hour training sessions that provide up-to-date accurate information. At first we thought we would create a group that would spend a year learning about all the topics, and be our core group of peer educators; however, as we progressed, we moved to a different approach. We now offer these information sessions on a rotating basis throughout the year to any student interested in taking part. There is no need to join a group, or commit to anything other than learning about the topic of interest. Students who take part earn community service credit for the time spent in the class. Their willingness to learn the facts about any of these topics means they become the seeds of prevention that will be planted every time they share their knowledge with a friend. This is community service that could potentially save lives.
The topics that were chosen by the focus group as being important to our youth include suicide prevention; suicide prevention among LGBT/GNC youth; safe dates-learning the signs of abusive relationships; the adolescent brain and why underage use of alcohol and marijuana is a greater risk than when adults use; body image and self-esteem; stress and anxiety management; vaping; the opioid epidemic,and the need for comprehensive sexual health education.
We realized that of all the topics identified, the sexual health topic would be difficult to fit into the format of a two-hour one-shot educational program. Rather than dismiss the topic, the YSB looked into ways of providing the information to interested youth in the community, and began offering the Our Whole Lives sexual health course for students in grades 7, 8 and 9 last year. This is a full-year class that meets three times a month from October through April. This year’s class is registering now.
The other topics lent themselves to the shorter information sessions. We have been offering them on a cycling basis. The schedule is listed and updated routinely on our website. This month we are presenting the vaping training on Sept. 24 from 7 to 8 p.m. On Oct. 22 we will cover suicide prevention. These sessions are open to parents and other community members in addition to high school students interested in peer education community service. If you have any questions about our Peer Educator program, or want to register for one of the sessions, call us at 860-844-5355.