MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Peer Health Exchange offers health education for young peers

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By Angela N. Parker

Founded by young people, for young people, the Peer Health Exchange (PHE) has worked to fill the health equity gap for youth in underserved communities.

The organization began as a labor of love by six Yale students who, responding to New Haven public schools ending their health education programming due to budget cuts, began teaching health workshops in many of those public schools.

In 2003, believing that all young people deserve equal opportunities to be healthy — including access to health education — regardless of where they lived or socioeconomic status, the founding members officially established PHE to replicate this successful program in other communities with unmet health education needs. Since then, the organization has provided mental health, sexual health and substance misuse prevention education to more than 200,000 high school students in New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

The organization literally utilizes a peer-to-peer model, training college students to teach a skills-based health curriculum to ninth-grade students in under-resourced high schools. Those skills include how to communicate effectively, identity sexual consent, evaluate health information, make decisions, seek help and access health resources. PHE launched in Los Angeles in 2009, reaching up to 2,050 young people in the current school year.

“Despite the need for high-quality health education, schools often do not commit adequate resources to deliver effective health education and connect students to health resources in their communities,” said LaDawn Best, executive director of Peer Health Exchange Los Angeles. “PHE helps fill this critical gap and [our] commitment to health equity is at the center of the work we do. I continue to be inspired by the way we show up for young people in the provision of effective health education.”

Best, who joined the team in 2013, has worked in the public school system, the non-profit sector, LGBTQ anti-violence advocacy and peer education, and recognizes the power of bringing different sectors together to address unmet needs.

“We build linkages to preventative resources … and connect students to the preventative care they need,” Best said. “Every day young people navigate difficult decisions around their mental health, sexual health and substance use. These decisions have serious consequences for their health, academic success and their futures.”

Best is particularly proud of the way the organization has created a dialogue for young people dealing with depression and anxiety.

“I’m really excited about the conversations we are having with young people about their mental health,” she said. “I don’t see these kinds of conversations happening in a lot of other spaces.

“I’ve seen ninth-grade students ask honest questions and seek additional help and resources regarding their mental health. PHE’s volunteers do a great job in helping to reduce mental health stigma in the classroom and connecting young people to resources, two critical components of supporting young people’s mental health.”

Despite their many successes, the organization continues to be challenged by how to get the word out to those who can benefit from the program.

“There are thousands of young people in L.A. County alone that can benefit from our program,” Best said. “We are constantly faced with the challenge of how to reach more young people and to ensure that young people in L.A. have access to health information and resources.”

Best believes that by participating in PHE, young people get a greater understanding of what they need to make active, informed choices for a healthy life.

“By participating in our program, students get stronger at decision-making and develop skills in communication and advocacy,” Best said. “As an example, after completing our program students are more likely to visit a health center. They are also better able to define consent and are able to spot warnings signs of poor mental health for themselves or a friend.”

This article originally appeared in the Wave Newspapers.

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