The COVID-19 pandemic brought the topic of mental health to the forefront everywhere — including within our schools. With increased isolation, especially among young people, conversations around mental health in education and social-emotional learning have never been more prevalent. But it doesn’t have to stop there.
In addition to working to break the stigma and increase awareness, experts believe service to others can go a long way in improving an individual’s mental health and creating a greater feeling of community. That’s where Schools Against Cancer comes in.
Your School 🤝 and the Mission to End Cancer
Joanne Lombardo, a school counselor at Edward Town Middle School, is passionate about providing an opportunity for her students to get involved in the cancer cause. In the past year, Joanne was diagnosed with breast cancer and received radiation treatments at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. Her son was also diagnosed with bladder cancer.
“Everyone knows someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, so it is a cause that we can all relate to,” said Joanne.
Joanne leads the Bald for Bucks program at her school so students have an opportunity to get involved in the mission to end cancer. But, from her perspective, giving back to a greater cause can also have mental health benefits.
“Service activities promote a sense of universality for students — that feeling that we are all in this together.”
She added that, in many cases, volunteerism also provides students with connections to like-minded people and role models while teaching them about goal setting. Additionally, participation can boost self-esteem and confidence.
“Service activities allow them to see the world differently and provide a sense of accomplishment. All of these things help decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression, which unfortunately are on the rise with teens.”
Building Resiliency Through Service
“If we think about resiliency as that ability to bounce back from difficult situations, that really fits in well with socioemotional work and mental health,” said Dr. Gallagher. “We know that we can learn skills and that we can build up our resiliency muscle by practicing different things like gratitude, kindness, building relationships and using positive coping. By doing that, we are actually helping protect and buffer against difficult or adverse situations.”
Dr. Gallagher explained that service-oriented activities and volunteerism are, at their core, centered around kindness.
“Kindness is one of those basic building blocks that you could also call a life hack, where if we’re practicing kindness toward others, that person or that group gets a good boost of happiness and builds up their resiliency muscle,” said Dr. Gallagher.
So, in some ways, practicing kindness or service to others creates a domino effect of giving back and strengthening a sense of community.
Coping Through Community
Cancer impacts people at any age, and young people are not immune from the pain it might bring. Whether a loved one is battling the disease, they’re grieving the loss of someone they care about or maybe they are facing a diagnosis themselves, many students could benefit from an outlet to talk about cancer and the impact it has had on their lives.
Schools Against Cancer not only removes some of the stigma around cancer, but it also can create a safe space for students to channel their emotions into something positive. Joanne has seen this firsthand at her school.
“Cancer is a scary word. Bald for Bucks and Schools Against Cancer give children a feeling that they can do something to help their loved ones fight cancer. Raising money to support cancer research and programs allows kids an avenue to contribute toward the mission to end cancer,” said Joanne. “It allows them to give back and say thank you for the care and support their loved one received. It helps kids realize there is a community to support them. It gives them a purpose and helps them feel they are contributing toward others’ well-being. It builds resiliency. And hope.”
Beyond Schools Against Cancer
We know the lessons we learn as students can be carried with us for years to come. That can include skills like empathy, service and leadership, which are key pieces of the Schools Against Cancer program. That means not only can a student’s involvement help them during their time in school, but it can also be a way to enhance life preparedness.
“Community service teaches kids about caring for others. It helps them experience empathy for people in different situations. It helps improve social skills and life skills, such as communication and leadership. It allows students to examine their moral and social values and teaches them about social responsibility. It helps them understand that even small acts of kindness can have a big impact toward a collective goal,” Joanne explained.
So, yes, when your school gets involved in Schools Against Cancer, you are making a difference for cancer patients everywhere. But, you’re also making a difference for the young people in your building. The tools they develop to step outside of their comfort zone, address and improve their own mental health and remember to check in on others will set them up for a lifetime of healthier and happier interactions, in both a personal and community sense.