“You may not see the sun, but it has not failed to shine. It is just being covered. You may not see a hope for something better, but there is.”
“You are more than your worries.”
“Keep your heads held high and your attitudes higher.”
These are just a few recent encouraging tweets from @zeelandbenice, a group at Zeeland High School on a mission to spread love and support for their peers. Todd Kamstra is a counselor and social worker at Zeeland High School. This is the third year the school district has supported a chapter of Be Nice, a mental health awareness and bullying and suicide prevention program started by the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan.
Each of the district’s schools has implemented the campaign the best way they see fit, and Kamstra said “it’s certainly something we’ve embraced as a district, K-12.”
He said reframing heavy talks about suicide and bullying into a simple mission to be nice has helped teachers and students open up about topics that can otherwise be difficult to discuss.
“It’s a way for us to begin and tiptoe into that conversation that has been the last taboo,” Kamstra said.
The high school holds a yearly assembly in support of the program and banners are prominently displayed in the gym. Teachers wear their Be Nice gear once a month and students operate the Be Nice Twitter feed with some staff supervision.
“I think it’s a reminder for all of us, adults included, that just being nice can make someone’s day and it can also make your day go better,” he said.
Kamstra points to an example of a young man who was bullying a female student at the school. Two other girls were nearby and an administrator overheard them telling the bully that “we don’t do that kind of thing here. We have this thing called Be Nice.”
Stories like that brighten Christy Buck’s day. She’s the Executive Director of the Mental Health Foundation. She said Be Nice was started four years ago in response to the suicide death of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student who died after online bullying at his expense.
Buck said the sad circumstances surrounding Clementi’s death spurred her into action. She thought of the idea for Be Nice and had her assistant, Larissa Payton, who is also a graphic designer, create an eye-catching logo that’s featured on bumper stickers, t-shirts and other merchandise available for purchase.
The Be Nice campaign focuses on the underlying mental health issues that can lead someone to take their own life and the ways in which bullying can exacerbate an already fragile mental state.
“We want people to understand that their actions can have an effect on people’s mental health,” she said.
Last July, the organization launched a full curriculum that can be purchased and implemented in schools around the country. Buck said over 45 schools are currently using the kit, mostly in West Michigan, although some schools in Ohio are just starting to put it in place.
“We would love it if we could get farther into the east side of the state and throughout Michigan,” Buck said.
Curriculum centers around the n.i.c.e model of notice, invite, challenge, and empower:
- Notice what is good, what is right, and what we could do better to make everyone feel like they belong.
- Invite ourselves to make a change. Remember, the small things make a big difference.
- Challenge others to join you in the movement.
- Empower your entire school and community to embrace the principles of Be Nice
Buck said being more aware and empathetic goes a long way toward preventing suicide in a high school setting. Buck sometimes attends Be Nice assemblies held at local high schools. She remembers one student in particular, a girl who looked like she had it completely together, but whose home life was falling apart. An observant teacher likely saved her life.
“If it weren’t for a teacher who noticed what was going on, she had actually been contemplating taking her life,” Buck said. “Be Nice asks if you can be that person to notice it in somebody else.”
Learn more about Be Nice at beniceonline.com, where you can purchase merchandise and find out how to start a chapter of Be Nice in your school.
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