As a high school student living in a pretty privileged area around DC, I can say that many of my peers (including myself, many times), have taken our well-rounded education for granted. Having moved to the Bronx for university, I realized how many students simply don’t receive the kind of education I did, and it had me wondering whether or not I’d be where I am without it. So when I wandered onto campus my freshman year of college, I made one of the most wonderful and inspiring decisions of my life by deciding to volunteer with Peer Health Exchange.
Many students in city high schools are unknowingly burdened with the lack of informative and useful health education. As the number of teenagers who engage in unsafe health behaviours is precariously high, volunteers at Peer Health Exchange (PHE) want to step in and do something about it. Once a week, we teach a series of thirteen 45-minute workshops in urban high schools that might be understaffed or don’t receive enough funding to provide their students with adequate health education. In the past, the curriculum has spanned topics such as:
- Mental Health
- Sexual Decision-Making
- Rape & Sexual Assault
- Nutrition & Physical Activity
- Decision-Making & Communication
- Abusive Relationship
- Healthy Relationship
- Pregnancy Prevention
In a new and improved curriculum, Peer Health Exchange is teaching these topics in an entirely different organization, grouping and relating these topics to skills like reflection, communication, decision-making, and accessing resources (like health clinics and the like), specifically focusing on mental health, sexual health, and substance use. The mission at PHE is that we give students the knowledge and skills they need to make healthy decisions. We give them an explanation rather than simply telling them what to do or what not to do, which is something I think makes PHE volunteers more approachable to 9th graders who might be dealing with some of the things we talk about for the first time themselves.
As a Health Educator last year, I taught the workshop on Mental Health in several schools in the Bronx. I had access to health education in high school, but the curriculum I was taught barely introduced mental health topics to me. As I looked over PHE’s curriculum, most of the content I was learning for the first time myself, such as the statistics on just how widespread the effect of mental illness is on teenagers (around 20% are personally affected). The emphasis on the stigma around mental health, the effect of the multitude of negative stereotypes, and information for the students on health clinics and hotlines they can access in order to get help are some of the things PHE includes in their curriculum. Many of the subjects we talk about might seem taboo to the 14 year olds we interact with, but the effect of PHE remains strong. In fact, PHE reports that 92% of teens we reach say they’ll use the information we give them and 68% say they already have since the program began.
The Impact of PHE
Some of the first things I learned while with PHE that weighed down on my heart were the mere statistics that stand as a basis for PHE’s mission and workshops. Taken from the organization’s website:
- One in five teenagers is a binge-drinker.
- One in six teenagers smokes cigarettes.
- Three in ten teen girls become pregnant by age 20.
- One in ten teenagers experiences violence in a relationship.
- One in four teenagers is overweight or obese.
Why I love being involved with this incredible organization is that it’s helped me to get out of the suburban bubble I come from and personally interact with extremely underprivileged students in an urban setting. I’ve received a plethora of Security Alerts from my university of dangerous happenings nearby in the Bronx and have heard countless times about the elevation of drug/substance use and teen pregnancies, but hearing this information first-hand from 9th graders who are actually dealing with it themselves is both saddening and motivating. As someone who went years (even somewhat into high school) thinking substance abuse, relationship violence, and teen pregnancies just happen in movies, it hit me hard. People like me who are lucky enough to receive health education have no idea how indubitably relevant it is, and students in underprivileged areas who don’t receive health education at all face these on a daily basis and just accepting that they’re common occurrences. The juxtaposition of my childhood environment to the environment in the Bronx (and every other city PHE reaches, like Boston, Chicago, LA, the Bay Area, other boroughs of New York City, and DC) just shows how much of an impact health education as early as high school or middle school can have on our lives.
Peer Health Exchange has transformed not only my life, but the lives of thousands of inner-city students with more to come. For the past 10 years, it’s been empowering high schoolers to use the information and skills we teach in order to make healthier decisions. As an advocate of making sure people know why they do what they do, whether it’s healthy or unhealthy, and the potential positive and negative consequences of their actions, PHE’s mission sticks with me as one that actually can change the world, one person, classroom, school, and city at a time.
For more information on Peer Health Exchange, visit peerhealthexchange.org.