South Side program teaches mental health and wellness


South Side High School students were recently given a reprieve from their typical academic schedule to focus on improving social and emotional wellness in the school’s Sources of Strength program.

Sources of Strength is a national suicide-prevention program funded locally by the Ryan Patrick O’Shea foundation. It was introduced at the high school not long after O’Shea, a South Side graduate and a star basketball player, died by suicide on Jan. 11, 2019.

The program, now in its third year at the high school, takes a proactive approach to preventing suicide, and other mental health concerns, by ensuring that students have access to resources that can help them become stronger, healthier and more connected — more resilient during the most challenging times, as South Side Principal Patrick Walsh put it.

“What is really special about it is that it is driven and run by a truly dedicated team of faculty and staff,” Walsh said of Sources of Strength. “Creating conditions and opportunities to establish positive connections between our students and staff is essential. Throughout the year, the team broadcasts messages of hope, positivity and resiliency throughout our school through various campaigns and activities.”’

Nicole Knorr, a social worker at the high school, helps facilitate the program with the help of 20 adult advisers and 50 peer leaders throughout the school, who promote healing and support so that students know they are not alone in their struggles.

“Not everybody is going to tap into the same social strength, because we’re all different,” Knorr said. “So what might be my main strength may not be yours. And that’s OK. Sometimes kids don’t even recognize how they can develop and strengthen these areas of their life until they start talking about it.”

Gordon Wood, SSHS’s school psychologist, added that with midterm exams on the horizon, the program also helps provide students with a much-needed break from their studies. It gives them the chance to discuss and take part in activities associated with mental health, family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality and medical access.

During a phys. ed. class on Jan. 20, students lined up in rows to take part in an activity focusing on mental health. The instructor, Liz Marshall, asked students to take a step forward based on whether they had siblings, felt stress, had trouble sleeping, and other questions intended to help identify some of the things that can take a toll on mental well-being.

Meanwhile, down the hall, yoga instructor Maryann Vogel helped students learn basic yoga poses and stretches, which they can use  as a healthy method of stress relief.

In the school lobby, another group of students and faculty answered the question, “What lifts you up?” The answers were written on small feathers and later posted on a board to form a pair of wings.

Knorr said that during the week, the school had broadcast public-service messages promoting mental health, and offered classroom lessons on the variety of ways that students could find support and get connected.

“We’ve created a culture in this building where kids are getting help for themselves, but they’re also watching out for their friends and getting help for their friends,” she said.

Knorr said that she planned to meet with the peer leaders and adult advisers at the end of the month to discuss what they enjoyed about this year’s campaign, what was valuable, what can be done better next time, and what the next campaign will focus on.

At the end of the school year, the program culminates with Sources of Strength Day, an outdoor event featuring games, giveaways, food and a DJ.

Last year, Knorr said, the campaign focused on identifying trusted adults throughout the school building. “Part of that campaign was to create posters of faculty members where they were able to share fun facts about themselves that kind of makes us approachable,” she said.

John O’Shea, Ryan’s father and a former president of the Board of Education, told the Herald last year that he found the program to be an “uplifting” addition.

“We give our kids a great education here in Rockville Centre and the other school districts, but life is becoming harder and harder for our younger people to process,” O’Shea said. “We give them the tools to learn math, science and English, but they need tools to get through the mental aspect of life. It’s really so important to pay attention to your mental health. You can get over your problems. Nothing is so bad that you can’t get past it and make it better.”

Sources of Strength has been such a success that it has expanded to school districts in neighboring communities including Freeport and Oceanside. For more on the program, and the ways in which it works with school districts across the country, go to