Above: A student at the C.A.R.E. Center sits besides a teddy bear.
In this world, many of us youth feel like we are hanging on a single thread of hope. We all have those moments in our life when we feel alone and like we have no one to turn to. Everyone feels this, not just adults, youth too. But adults often tell us, “This is just a phase. You’ll get over it.”
Who do we turn to then when adults crush our belief that they can help?
When I was in 9th grade, I felt like the world was crashing down on me. In response to that despair, I self-mutilated. One day, I broke down in class. I couldn’t take anymore. A friend referred me to the school’s C.A.R.E. Center.
The Counseling, Assistance, Resource and Education (C.A.R.E.) Center at Long Beach Polytechnic High School is a place where no one is judged, where peer counselors who genuinely care focus on helping you. Students can come during class time if they need to talk or if they are going through a difficult period.
Peer counselors aren’t trained professionals, but they are trained to handle what can be very emotional situations. They are fellow classmates or schoolmates who can empathize or relate. Peer counselors will speak the truth bluntly if necessary, but will never push someone away.
Our current counselor, Paul Gonzalez, started our school’s C.A.R.E. Center. Before that, he opened a similar center at a middle school at a time when gang violence was spiking.
I hear some teachers say that students use the C.A.R.E. Center to ditch class, or that they shouldn’t use class time to take care of mental health issues. Some parents even tell their children that it’s selfish to express what they are feeling.
When a young person is told this, it only adds to their pain.
“I am sorry for what I’ve done,” wrote one 14-year-old in a letter composed during a recent visit to the C.A.R.E. Center. “I feel ashamed that I never told anyone I was in need of help.”
Another student shared this: “I felt really stupid for getting the pills for my brother [six years ago]. I didn’t really care. But now he’s servin’ time behind bars.”
Young people place a lot of guilt on themselves, and peer counselors don’t take situations like these lightly. They know and understand how it feels to be there, maybe more than adults do.
Adults underestimate youth. They think we have not gone through life’s hardships, or are not mature enough to handle ourselves, so how can we expect to help another peer, they ask.
Peer counselors most certainly can, because we do it on a daily basis. “I like knowing that I’m a part of making this campus a better place and that I’m able to help people overcome their struggles and succeed,” said Christian Greer, one of the peer counselors.
The other peer counselors, including my friend Kim, said they enjoy “helping people out since [we] know that everyone goes through their own struggles.”
I know from my own experience that having a place on campus where I can open up about my emotions made me feel safe.
I was once afraid of opening up. Today, I am one of 22 peer counselors at my school. I applied my sophomore year, went through two interviews and got accepted.
My first training was during my first semester as a junior. Together with the other counselors, we shared personal stories, role played, learned how to break the ice with clients and how to handle certain situations. In the second semester, we were assigned different periods during which we provided student support.
Being a peer counselor isn’t easy. There will be certain situations when you don’t always know what to do. I learned to ask other peer counselors for advice on how to handle difficult situations.
A big rule is confidentiality: everything told to you remains that way. But there are certain circumstances when we have to break confidentiality, which includes self-harm, harm to others, or when others are harming you (abuse, rape, threats of a sort).
Being a peer counselor is one of the best decisions I made during high school. I got to know my peers on a more personal level, and got to help others and let them know I was there for them. Also, I believe the program has reduced fights on campus and improved our students’ mental health.
Ours is currently the only school in the district that has a peer counseling program. Mr. Gonzalez is trying to expand it to other schools. I believe it would be beneficial to create more safe places where students can speak openly without being scared.