PALS THRIVE helping teens navigate fears as school shootings multiply

UF Health PALS THRIVE leadership staff, UF graduate students and area high school council members congratulate Orlando Merced-O’Neil, center, who was awarded the 2018 Gloria Fletcher PALS THRIVE Community Award before the annual fundraiser.The lure of free snacks drew Alexandra Bedoya to her first session of the PALS THRIVE club during her freshman year at Saint Francis Catholic Academy. But it was the welcoming people in the club who kept her coming back.

“The more I got to know about PALS,” the 18-year-old senior said, “the more I fell in love with it.”

PALS THRIVE is a collaboration among UF Health, Alachua County Public Schools, Saint Francis Catholic Academy in which graduate students in psychology work with middle and high schools to combat bullying, violence and suicide and to provide counseling for mental health issues.

When Bedoya was a sophomore, she said the group helped her deal with the anxiety she felt consuming her. “I went to the PALS counselor, and I absolutely broke down,” she recalled.

Services such as PALS THRIVE are in the spotlight now as communities around the nation struggle to cope with a growing number of deadly shootings at schools. The program itself was born in the aftermath of one such event, the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado that left 12 students dead and more than two dozen injured.

The mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14 that claimed the lives of 17 students and adults and left 17 others wounded left millions of Americans numb. Bedoya was one of them.

“The school shooting being such a bloody and horrible thing, I didn’t want to put my attention to it,” she said. “I didn’t want to focus on it. I didn’t really want to address it any more than just classroom conversation.”

That soon changed when she learned a close friend in PALS THRIVE had lost two of his friends in the shooting. Bedoya realized she could no longer ignore the reality of what had happened.

That’s why, in the heat of a mid-March day and joined by other high school students in the area, Bedoya walked to protest gun violence in schools. One month later, as high school students nationwide took part in another organized protest against gun violence, another shooting took place, this one closer to home: at Ocala’s Forest High School, where one teen was wounded. The alleged shooter was arrested.

Bedoya said she was impressed that students were the ones leading the march and filled with the desire to change the conversation in America about gun rights. In PALS THRIVE, too, she said she has seen student leaders changing the atmosphere of the school.

Such student activism is at the core of the program.

Jessica Marrero was 15 and attending Buchholz High School in 1999 when gunfire erupted at Columbine. Worried about the “atmosphere of exclusion” that contributed to the tragedy, she and her younger sister Shannon worked with mental health professionals at Shands Vista, a behavioral health hospital now called UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital that offers inpatient and outpatient adolescent psychiatric care, and with the University of Florida departments of psychology and psychiatry as well as the Alachua County school superintendent to create PALS.

Their efforts earned the sisters the Blue Cross Blue Shield Sapphire Award, which recognizes programs that have a significant impact on health-related outcomes for at-risk communities. In 2011, the two were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

But what exactly is PALS THRIVE? And what does it do? Its mission is all in the name. Literally, it’s in the letters.

PALS, or Partners in Adolescent Lifestyle Support, is the people in the program. It’s the students in eight schools across Alachua County; it’s the graduate-level interns working with schools to combat bullying and to bring attention to mental health issues; it’s the UF Health employees providing resources and running the program behind the scenes.

And THRIVE, which was added to the name three years ago, is what they do: talk, heal, reach out, include, validate and encourage.

Since its founding, the program has seen almost 40,000 students participate in some way, said Lucy Marrero, Ph.D., a psychologist who practices at the UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital. She also is the mother of the program’s two founders.

“I think students are scared,” she said, referencing the response to the Parkland shooting. “I think they just come to school a little bit more fearful, but they do come.”

Along with allowing students to leave class and talk to a counselor whenever needed, the PALS THRIVE program, she said, has led anti-bullying workshops in classrooms and assemblies for the entire school.

“When any student is harboring a great deal of anger or has mental health problems, they feel like there is someone to go to,” Marrero said.

Within the PALS THRIVE program, there are also leadership opportunities for students. Student representatives from each of the eight schools make up the PALS THRIVE Leadership Council, which meets biweekly to discuss anything school-related. Yanel Casanova, LMHC, the program’s clinical coordinator, leads the group.

At a recent meeting, students talked about suicide threats on social media and what to do if someone appears to be intent on harming themselves.

Orlando Merced-O’Neill, an 18-year-old junior at Buchholz and a PALS THRIVE council member for the school, said learning to cope with school-life balance is difficult, but the group has helped him.

“I vowed that if I ever saw a child who was put into my situation,’’ he said, “suffering years of torment or self-abuse or self-neglect because they feel they’re not worth it anymore, it’s my responsibility — my duty — to help them.”

Any student is welcome to attend counseling, and anyone can refer a student to a counseling session: a parent, a teacher or even the student.

Giving adolescents space and time at schools to be counseled is an incredible resource, said Denise Thomas, PALS THRIVE’s administrative coordinator.

“Looking at mental health overall in our nation, access is just a big issue,” she said. So the addition of two schools and more personnel in 2017, she said, was a great success.