George Lucas Educational Foundation

Stealth Mental Health: Student Support Without the Stigma

In southern Oregon, community specialists get to know and counsel kids through school activities.
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Stealth Mental Health: Student Support Without the Stigma (Transcript)

Student: I got it high.

Eric: Oh yeah, nice.

Narrator: In rural Grants Pass, Oregon, Eric Epstein uses games to teach students at Jerome Prairie Elementary School, better social skills.

Eric: Okay, so first of all, who remembers something you learned from medicine ball, that helped you succeed? Yes?

Student: Teamwork.

Eric: Teamwork, okay.

Your job now is to make a creature, a living creature out of your play dough that represents you in some way.

Narrator: Epstein works for the nonprofit Southern Oregon Adolescent Study and Treatment Center. As a school community advocate, he spends most of his week with students.

Student: I made a gorilla as mine.

Eric: So why is the gorilla like you?

Student: It's big and strong.

Eric: Big and strong. Good.

Narrator: A key to the advocate's success is that they avoid the stigma of formal counseling. Running student clubs, they become magnets for kids who need a personal connection.

Eric: How is you guys' day going? Are you surviving?

Narrator: Then, having earned the students' trust, they counsel children in crisis.

Eric: Is it, when Mom and Dad are fighting, do you go hide in your room, or what do you do, so you don't have to hear it?

Narrator: Grants Pass is a high poverty area with many kids who need the help. Across town, at North Valley High School, Epstein deals with everything from sexual abuse, to drugs, to suicide.

Student: I got my heart broken, and I didn't really think there was much left to life, so I just decided I'd try and end it. It was a hard time trying to get back. I got a lot of help from you. And it's getting easier every day, but just barely.

Eric: There is no better access point in America, for connecting with kids and families, than public school systems. Most traditional counselors, most of their time is in an office that people have to come to, in order to visit them. If we are able to go and be alongside them in life, they have more trust that we can understand their life, and we generally do.

Student: I kind of freaked people out with what I did. I got really mad for not really any particular reason, and you know, I hit a locker, and my hand was bleeding everywhere.

Linda: For adolescents, it's their peer relationships that are more important than anything else going on in their lives. If we intervene separate from those peer relationships, we may learn some great things about the student, but we're not really hitting it where the action is.

Eric: It's one thing to have a passionate belief that you hold onto, because you deeply believe in it, and it's another, to become rigid and to not be able to have that belief affected by people.

Narrator: It costs 15,000 dollars a year to have an advocate ten hours a week, a price mainly paid by grants. Discipline referrals have dropped since the start of the program, and educators here say there are further rewards.

Ken: Well before Eric came to our school, I had to be a counselor to the students, and I had to handle situations that I really felt uncomfortable in. When Eric came onboard, it was nice, because I was spending, probably 25 to 35 percent of my time dealing with these situations, and here is somebody who's a professional, that has training in this area, and better than that, the kids will work with.

Student: Thanks for being there.

Eric: My pleasure.

Student: I guess the thing I needed today, is you can't stand up with your own two legs sometimes. You need another pair. Everyone does.

Narrator: For more information on, What Works in Public Education, go to

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  • Grace Rubenstein

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