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Instead of creating peer pressure, some Ventura County high school students are giving peer support

A program at eight Ventura County high schools is using professionals and volunteer "wellness peers" to help students facing emotional and mental health issues.
Hannah Busing
A program at eight Ventura County high schools is using professionals and volunteer "wellness peers" to help students facing emotional and mental health issues.

Trained students help classmates with emotional and mental health issues.

Mental health isn’t just an adult issue. It can also be a big one for kids, especially teens.

Some Ventura County high schools have a unique program which is giving teens emotional and mental health support, by involving some of their peers.

"I was one of the many students struggling with mental health during the pandemic," said Jason Gutierrez. "I reached out, and got some of the help I needed."

Gutierrez is one of the students assisted by one of the Wellness Centers located on eight Ventura County High School campuses. The program includes professional staff, but a small army of trained student volunteer wellness peers.

"It's to provide access and linkage to mental health services, as well as resources," said Suzanne Weist, who is the program coordinator for the three-year-old project.

She says the students receive special training before they become one of the wellness peers. There's an interview process, they have to have a 3.0 GPA, be in good standing in school, and go through an interview process.

Volunteer Angel Gabriel Gomez Cortez, who’s an Oxnard High School student, talks about some of the things they do to help fellow students

"We talk about stigma, and that the mind matters. We get trained to spread awareness," said the student.

Many participants say they found the program when they were reaching out for help themselves. Moorpark High School Wellness Peer Adi Ramirez says she, and many others in the program have found by helping others, they help themselves as well.

"We came back from COVID...I was like I want to do just seemed like something I need in my life to cope with things," said Ramirez. "They learn something, I learn something, we both get something out of it."

The program is funded by a state grant, and is being run by the Ventura County Office of Education, in conjunction with Ventura County Behavioral Health.

The 100 wellness peers gathered at an event in Camarillo on Wednesday to enhance their training. They heard from speakers who told their own stories about struggling with emotional and mental health issues.

Wiest said it’s amazing how well the volunteers get the importance of what they are doing, especially because they can have conversations with other teens in the ways many adults can’t.

Gutierrez says he came to the program needing support, but now he’s one of those giving it. He said it’s a remarkable feeling to be able to support others in this way.

"I want to help people. I want to help people which were once in my position. It's a good feeling," said Gutierrez.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.