OLYMPIC HIGH — With teen suicide a growing concern across the country, students at Santa Monica’s Olympic High School are getting an added amount of attention, courtesy of a couple of UCLA graduate students with plans to make a difference in the mental health field.

After being awarded an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, Ashley Roberts and Anne Sutkowi, both master’s degree students in UCLA’s Department of Community Health Sciences, co-founded a program for youths they call STRIDES.

Launched a month ago as a pilot program at Olympic High, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s continuation campus, the goal is to give kids at risk of falling into bad habits that can eventually lead to suicide new strategies for dealing with stress and depression.

The curriculum, which is taught twice weekly during students’ regular health class, has both a psychological and a physical component. Lessons focus on topics from goal setting and stress management to things like nutrition, anatomy and old fashioned physical fitness.

“We hope that this program will bridge that gap that seems to exist in most high school health classes that focus on physical health but don’t incorporate mental health as much,” Roberts said.

The co-founders’ ambition is to do their part to prevent suicide — the third-leading cause of death among teenagers — but they also hope the lessons they’re teaching will have a broader impact on promoting healthier lifestyles.

“The class is technically a suicide prevention program, but all of the issues we’re talking about are relevant in these kids’ lives,” Roberts said.

To Marcia Gecht, a teacher at Olympic for 35 years, welcoming STRIDES into her health class is an example of how curriculum flexibility at the continuation school benefits students.

“It’s always good to have additional programs that come to us without costing money,” she said.

While the subject matter may not seem earth shattering — and indeed, Gecht said she’s taught similar lessons to health students before — it can have a big impact.

One 17-year-old in the class, she said, had never gone on a jog until she was encouraged by Roberts and Sutkowi to participate in group runs.

The students, she said, have responded to their teachers’ enthusiasm.

“[The kids] actually look forward to it, because they’re making them rise to the occasion,” she said.

Another of STRIDES’ goals is to raise awareness among the broader public that teen suicide is preventable.

Toward that end, the course will culminate with a 5K run/walk event on Nov. 21 at Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey that is open to the public. Organizers said 200 people are expected to participate.

For Roberts, who hopes to continue the program after the initial 10-week course at Olympic, there have already been personal growth benefits to the project as well.

Getting a skeptical group of high school students on your side, she’s learned, is a difficult undertaking.

“They don’t necessarily welcome you with open arms,” she said. “It’s been a challenge trying to break through and build that trust, but it’s really rewarding when they do come around.”

For more information about the STRIDES and the 5K event, go to www.strideslosangeles.blogspot.com.

nickt@smdp.com

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