How do you say no to drugs and alcohol? How do you tell someone you are feeling depressed?
For teenagers in Lodi and throughout San Joaquin County, these questions can be a daily struggle to answer. But thanks to a group that extensively teaches and trains teens to talk to their peers about these issues, struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues may become easier to address in the future.
Called Students in Prevention, or SIP, the 32-year-old program educates and trains a select group of students from each high school in the county to go out and speak to students as young as 11 years old about the downsides of drug and alcohol abuse.
The program has also started to train high school-aged students on how to deal with mental health issues, which include depression and schizophrenia.
"I wasn't really active in the community before this," said Sam Drake, a junior at Tokay High School and a SIP participant. "I thought it was a good cause, and I actually think that through a program you can make a difference."
Drake, 16, applied for the program after hearing a presentation in his classroom during his sophomore year. All participants who apply for the program must do so during their sophomore year. And if they are selected, they go through a six-week training course during the summer before their junior year.
During their training, SIP participants also visit places including the St. Joseph's Behavioral Health Center in Stockton.
"There is so much stigma and the idea that, 'Oh my god, these people are crazy,'" Drake said. "But they are just normal people and they have these problems that, left unattended, have turned into something serious. When someone now says a person is 'psycho' or 'crazy,' I actually get offended."
During their junior year, SIP participants visit multiple schools that feed into their respective high schools to talk with students about drug use and abuse.
The program's target age to reach out to students is the fourth grade.
According to Christiane Highfill, the coordinator of the program, the average age when someone first tries drugs is 12 years old.
Highfill said that while the program is constantly updating its curriculum, news and information is also continually updated about substance abuse and mental health issues.
The biggest challenge facing the program, however, is not the constant influx of information. It is that age-old concept of peer pressure that can still be a problem not only for high school students, but for the participants as well.
"They are still teenagers, still kids, and they still want to have that sense of belonging," she said. "It's still a struggle, especially when they may feel awkward at a party. They think, 'I want to be with my friends, but look how ridiculous they are doing this or that.' They feel out of the loop."
But for those in the program, saying "no" to drugs and alcohol is not a problem.
In fact, participants say they are proud to do so.
And the program is not just about community service hours for college or finding a way to pass the time. For those involved, the program means much more.
McNair High School junior Sophia Dhillon said the program was a way to share personal experiences she struggled with at home.
Dhillon said her father struggled with mental illness, and through SIP she was able to share personal stories with new friends who she knew would understand and would not make her feel uncomfortable or awkward.
"(SIP) helped me deal with my life at home, and now I get to reach out to others," she said. "I now know a lot of other people that went through what I am going through. And this program ... I love it."
Contact reporter Katie Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.