What started with a disturbing statistic led Matanzas High senior Alyssa Sa start the Pirates and Peers club to help students deal with their mental health.
“In my sophomore year, I found out Flagler County has one of highest suicide rates in all of Florida,” Sa said. “That really tugged on my heart.”
There were 31 suicides in the county in 2017, or 28.8 per 100,000 residents, which was the highest rate in the state at the time.
“That sounded crazy,” she said.
Then she noticed messages written in the schools’ bathroom stalls — teenagers crying out for help.
“I see it more and more, and that is super upsetting,” Sa said.
She got approval from administrators to paste sticky notes on the bathroom mirrors. The notes contain positive messages and phone numbers for hotlines where students can seek help.
Sa and some of her fellow Student Government Association members put up posters on Tuesdays, inviting their peers to meet a friend and make a connection.
Rob Roe, Matanzas' SGA adviser, told Sa she could make the activities into a club.
“We asked the school social workers, and they loved the idea,” Sa said. “So we started brainstorming.”
Pirates and Peers has been meeting weekly since last month. Jennifer D’Amato, a social worker at Matanzas, is the club’s sponsor. The school district has provided support.
“Their primary goal is to reduce the stigma, that it’s OK to not feel OK,” said Brandy Williams, Flagler Schools' coordinator of counseling services. “We're real proud of them.”
Sa said the club is trying to“foster an awareness and understanding for students who need support.”
The fact that the group is student-led is important, Williams said.
“We know the peer-to-peer relationship (among teenagers) is highly valued,” Williams said. “We just want to give them a list of resources.”
The Pirates and Peers’ first project was a “mindfulness walk” after second period with signs containing positive affirmations placed on the floors and posted in the courtyard.
“One of the biggest things is you never really know the payoff, because mental health is a silent battle that people are going through.”
She felt that some of the images shown in state-mandated videos on “Wellness Wednesdays” could be triggering for some people, so on the day of Wellness Wednesdays, she said the club, as well as the social workers, made themselves available to comfort and support those who were struggling.
“I’ve struggled with mental health myself,” she said. “I get triggered sometimes with some of pictures they show. You don’t have to struggle with mental health to be affected by the images.”
Sa is the president of the club. Lexi Hixton, a sophomore, is the vice president. Sa wanted an underclassman in a leadership role to make sure the club would continue after she graduates.
One of club’s concerns, Sa said, was deciding when to get adults involved after one-one conversations.
“The social workers have let us know when that line gets crossed and it’s time to bring an adult in,” she said.
“I think it’s going well,” Sa said. “But one of the biggest things is you never really know the payoff, because mental health is a silent battle that people are going through. But I have had a few students tell me they are so happy someone’s drawing attention to the stigma of mental health.”
“Alyssa has been a great leader in reducing the stigma,” Williams said. “She has been a real gift to that campus.”