Bullying – whether it’s verbal, physical or cyber – seems to be pervasive among adolescents and may lead to significant emotional and behavioral problems.
Communities may offer multiple programs to address the issue, often with variable results. That may be because some teens find it difficult talking about the issue with adults.
That’s why the University of Connecticut’s School of Medicine has embarked on a different model. The Anti-Bullying Class (ABC) is led by UConn medical students and primarily targets kids in middle school, the age when bullying typically peaks.
“It seems students don’t feel comfortable going to teachers or administrators, or even their parents,” says Christine Castater, third-year medical student. “All they really do is talk to their peers.”
The med students have found the children perceive them as more accessible and approachable than school personnel or clinicians. Even though there is an age difference, they still look at them as their peers, rather than authority figures.
“When we say, ‘I was bullied too or this was an experience that I had,’ it’s almost like modeling,” says Castater. “They hear about our experiences and see that we are now happy and successful, so they realize that maybe that is something they could achieve, too.”
The ABC task force holds workshops in schools throughout the state. The workshops may involve a large group of 15 to 20 students or a smaller group of five to seven students. The groups are led by one or two medical students.
“They play games and role-play to encourage participation,” says Dr. Marian Moca, assistant professor of psychiatry in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and director of the UConn Public School Consultation Service. “They focus on the relationship between ‘bullying’ and ‘feelings.’”
“We talk about how bullying feels when it’s being done to you but also how does it feel when you are watching it being done to somebody else,” adds Castater. “And we talked about actions. What do you do or who do you go to ask for help if you or someone else is being bullied?”
“It is our honor to be able to connect with young minds in open dialogue about bullying, and it is our responsibility to ensure we do everything we can to reach those who need help now—and to do our part in building the type of culture where bullying will be seen as a thing of the past,” says Oscar Gerdner, a third-year medical student and member of ABC.
Depression Education and Health Promotion Project
ABC is an off-shoot of another UConn school-based educational program called Depression Education and Health Promotion Project (DEHPP).
Project coordinator Michelle Slivinsky says that the DEHPP travel to schools and various organizations in the state and give presentations to children, parents and teachers about depression as well as mental health awareness.
“So much of our life is based on emotion,” says Slivinsky. “Parents are so concerned about providing food and clothing, but sometimes don’t think about the emotional development of their child.”
Depression Education aims to help teachers and parents – and even the kids themselves – identify who might be at risk for developing depression.
Moca says by age 24, most adult mental disorders have onset already, so caring for a child’s mental health should be a priority. “Mental health patients are typically pushed to the periphery but instead of pushing them away, they need to be encouraged to talk about their feelings.”
“Getting them help early and de-stigmatizing depression and mental illness is important in preventing long-term emotional problems,” adds Slivinsky.
During the Depression Education presentations, many of the questions and feedback they received from participants revolved around the issue of bullying. That’s when Moca and Slivinsky decided they needed a program like ABC in December of 2011.
These two community outreach programs are an important part of the UConn School Consultation Service, a relatively new service initiated and developed by Moca since 2010. “Working with schools is central in our work as child psychiatrists and other health professionals. People have asked us if we were doing this because of the Sandy Hook tragedy. The answer is no; we have been doing this for quite some time and need to be doing even more,” says Moca.
“As the next generation of physicians, we are on the forefront of mental health care, poised in a meaningful position to effect cultural change by working directly with students and schools to make our communities safer and healthier places to grow up,” adds Gerdner.
Preliminary findings from ABC’s first year found that the middle school students were comfortable in working with the medical students. They also found that the children openly shared their emotions and learned about psychiatric conditions for which they could get help.
They also found that older students were more preoccupied with social rejection while younger students were concerned with physical aggression.
Moca is pleased the program was well received in the community and hopes they can expand the program into more Connecticut schools. They also plan to collect data during their workshops to help aid in future research on the topic.
Other goals for Moca include recruiting more medical students to get involved with ABC, especially first- and second-year students to ensure continuity of the program; and applying for grants and trying to attract donors to help fund it.
“Right now we have no formal funding, just passion and commitment,” says Moca. “But we feel it’s such an important program and a good way of giving back to the community. Our motto is ‘help is all around’…and we’re hoping people will be there to help us, too.”