“Let’s Talk About It,” a UFT Member Assistance Program (MAP) initiative designed to educate and support students around addiction and mental health, had an additional challenge this year: helping students deal with the emotional toll of the coronavirus.
The pandemic required shifting the focus of the event to include “managing students’ stressors and challenges in the midst of COVID,” said MAP Director Tina Puccio.
Students from more than 150 middle and high schools citywide on June 11 joined the remote program, which was streamed on YouTube for them by their teachers or counselors.
The students related to “seeing teens talk about what they’ve been going through,” from peer pressure to unhealthy habits such as video game addiction, said Anna Maria Pastore, a teacher at the Theater Arts Production Company School in the Bronx.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew told the students that people get through challenges by working together and the event was “about being there for each other.”
MAP collaborated with Road Recovery, an entertainment industry-driven nonprofit program that supports youths struggling with addiction and other challenges with guidance from artists such as Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of the legendary hip-hop group Run-DMC.
McDaniels shared his story of recovery and emphasized the importance of therapy.
“I put the pressure on myself to live up to someone’s expectations,” he said, but reminded students, “You are perfect just the way you are.”
The video also showcased New York City public school students who displayed their creativity in musical performances, poetry readings, graphic design and short films through Road Recovery’s virtual Trax program. Paloma, a student and singer/songwriter from the Bronx, says writing music and drawing has helped her manage depression, “one of the biggest adversities” she’s faced.
Other event sponsors were the city Department of Education Substance Abuse Prevention and Intervention Specialists (SAPIS) program, World Wide Technology, the UFT’s Positive Learning Collaborative, the UFT’s United Community Schools and Seafield Center, Inc., a drug and alcohol treatment center.
Robert Mikos, the alcohol and substance abuse director for Staten Island schools, identified SAPIS counselors who would be available after the event to discuss coping strategies.
“In the current situation, a lot of things could trigger a kid. So we wanted to make sure that the kids were supported,” Mikos said.
Pastore said her students “totally connected” with Stephen Dewey, a neuroscientist and New York University research professor. Dewey explained how stress affects the mind and body and discussed managing it through positive thinking, mindfulness and meditation. He also suggested strategies to use as distractions during the pandemic, including sleep, a healthy diet, exercise, music, hobbies and pets.
“Talking about stress,” Dewey said, “is one of the most effective ways to manage it.”