I knew for most of my childhood that I was different from everyone else, but by the time I reached middle school, it became increasingly obvious. Being raised in an extremely religious and traditional household made me feel as if I had to live my life to certain standards in order to please my family. Marry a woman, read the Bible, be tough, don’t cry — these were all painful and impossible social expectations I was expected to follow.

Unfortunately, the community I lived in set impossible standards for me, leaving me questioning who I was. Is there something wrong with me? Do I need medical help? How could being in love ever be considered a bad thing? I chose to remain voiceless about who I was, fearing that any disclosure of my identity would present risks to my safety.

As a high school freshman, a community of students entered my life — Health Information Project (HIP). They gave me the knowledge and resources to responsibly manage my mental and physical health struggles, as well as surround me with a support system. During my first class, I realized the subjects we were learning about weren’t spoken about enough — topics like bullying, mental health stigma, and other social and societal issues, such as racism and homophobia. The vulnerability that HIP’s peer-to-peer learning fostered in us provided me and other students an invaluable asset that most health education classes overlook — emotional support. Instead of giving us long and boring lectures, the HIP peer health educators were vulnerable with students, which allowed for strong connections and meaningful conversations that ultimately changed my perspective on life. Because of HIP, I began to engage more academically and socially at my school, especially in my extracurricular activities, where I finally cultivated close relationships with others.

As a junior, I applied to become a HIP peer health educator. Now, I could be the one to provide students with the resources and guidance they needed to feel safe, protected and included on campus and in our community. Little did I know the impact that my teaching in HIP would have on others. When we started talking about social issues such as abuse, drugs, eating disorders and bullying, many students would approach me after class to have personal conversations and seek help. I was then able to connect them to the trusted adults at our school who are trained to assist students in need. If not for HIP, these students would never seek help and would suffer in silence. 

I do not want other students who struggle with their sexual identity or mental health to feel voiceless like I did, but I understand why so many choose to remain silent — they don’t have a program like HIP. Because lawmakers and school administrators have not made comprehensive health education a priority, many students are forced to handle their mental and physical health struggles alone and use dangerous coping mechanisms. Without peer-based health education, students resort to drugs, alcohol, self-harm or bullying because they do not fully understand the consequences of their actions. 

Being a HIP peer health educator ignited a passion in me to help other students the way HIP helped me. School districts, lawmakers, board members, superintendents, principals and administrators, please make this commitment: provide inclusive, comprehensive peer-to-peer health education to your students. With students’ mental health struggles being at an all-time high during COVID-19, using innovative programs, like HIP, to cultivate supportive environments that are centered around health education is of the utmost importance. This is the only way that my peers and the younger generations will feel supported, grow responsibly and most importantly, be proud of who they are.

Joshua Alexander is a senior at Miami Edison Senior High School. He was a HIP student as a high school freshman, then progressed to a peer health educator as a junior, and is now vice president of HIP at his school.

Published on Aug 09, 2021