October 20, 1997
Volume 50, No. 9
Sandra Leonard was leading a health class at Booker T. Washington High School. The topic of discussion was teens and violence. When Leonard asked if anyone had a friend or family member who'd died violently, just about every hand in the room shot up.
This early exposure to violence and grief has led to students developing a sense of hopelessness, of having nothing to strive for. "These kids are dealing with grief in a way a lot of us can't begin to grasp," said Leonard, a nursing school faculty member and half of Emory's Adolescent Health Station at Washington.
Leonard and partner Janice Daniels are working to address the emotional issues that students at Washington face, attempting to treat the ravages of grief and fear. These nurses don't tend to football practice scrapes or dispense Midol for cramps. Leonard and Daniels-and the Emory faculty and students who assist them-offer treatment for what's inside students' minds, not just what's going on with their bodies.
"We address the psycho-social issues that impact health," Leonard said. When she and Daniels opened the Adolescent Health Station in early 1996, they had taken a long, hard look at the needs of students and parents at Washington and the concerns of school administrators, teachers and health specialists. They discovered a need for a way of dealing with the problems teens face on the inside before those issues translated into problems on the outside-behavioral difficulties like absenteeism or health problems like pregnancy and violence. "When programs fragment those things, they don't get the whole child," Leonard said.
The problems at Washington can seem daunting. With more than 1,400 students, it is one of Atlanta's largest high schools-with some of the largest problems. At any given time, more than 125 students are pregnant or already parents. The absentee rate is the worst in the school system; on a daily basis more than a quarter of students aren't in class. And, maybe most alarming, the drop-out rate is steep-nearly half of ninth graders quit school.
"A lot of times, teens' problems start out small. But it you don't address them, they can snowball into something major. We hope our intervention at the early stages can prevent some of that," Leonard said.
For instance, a common problem the teens bring up is communicating with parents, particularly daughters with mothers. "Here's a case that can be common: a girl fights with her mom, which all teens do. But then they stop talking; the girl defies rules. It's not stopped, and the girl starts running away, staying out with a guy, maybe an older guy with his own apartment. She's absent from school, maybe she gets pregnant. It escalates," Leonard said.
Leonard and Daniels hold workshops and seminars for teens. They help girls and moms learn to communicate. They lead discussions on healthy relationships. With support from faculty and students at Emory, they offer specialized help. Bernadette Leite, a behavioral specialist at the school of public health and an expert on grieving, offers seminars on dealing with loss. Marietta Collins, who heads the school's teen suicide prevention division, works with troubled young people.
Nursing students enrolled in Nursing 499, the required community nursing clinical course for seniors, have worked with Leonard and Daniels on a number of projects. For instance, a recent student-led project helped pregnant high school students develop nutrition plans to counter low birthweights, a common health problem associated with teen pregnancy.
The Adolescent Health Station was launched in early 1996 through Emory's and the nursing school's existing partnership with The Atlanta Project. The Health Station was modeled after a successful program developed by Dean Dyanne Affonso. While the program is funded by the school for five years, the Health Station team is working on securing foundation grants to expand and continue the program.
-Rebecca Poynor Burns
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