Flyer Courtesy of Ben Ballman
Class discussions are now dark rectangles filled with names and muted red microphone symbols; lunch is no longer lively, just lonely; and the once crowded WCHS hallways are depressingly empty. With so little human connection, it becomes increasingly difficult to express emotion, leading many to fall into a mundane cycle of isolation. However, WCHS senior Ben Ballman has stepped up to the plate, attempting to reconnect students through his new, innovative mental health initiative.
“I know first-hand how boring and lonely quarantine can get, so I decided to start Students for Students,” Ballman said.
Students for Students is essentially what it sounds like; the program is run by students and its main purpose is to serve students. Each meeting is conducted over Zoom, with participants from all grades attending.
“There have been a couple of Students for Students sessions already,” Ballman said. “They have all been pretty successful and hopefully helpful to the students who attended.”
The typical meeting starts out with some introductions and icebreakers. The students usually do not know each other, so these activities help students connect and relax.
“I usually try to make sure we have icebreakers before we start any discussions,” Ballman said. “I know a lot of people who show up feel awkward and the icebreakers can help them ease up.”
The next part of the meetings centers around Ballman leading discussions on mental health and the overall quarantine experience. Each student gets to say their own piece and tell their stories to the group. Eventually, the semi-structured discussion turns into a casual, friendly conversation.
“It has been pretty amazing to see the people who come warm up to each other and start having a normal conversation,” Ballman said. “I feel like we don’t get enough of that nowadays.”
The meetings are a refreshing change of pace and the seemingly simple conversations can go a long way for some students. Though many students have social media or various other ways to contact their friends, there are some who have been virtually isolated since the beginning of quarantine.
“I know a lot of kids get most of their interaction at school and see their friends at school, so it’s important for us to maintain that kind of connection even through quarantine,” Ballman said.
In addition to providing human connection for students, the Students for Students meetings also provide safe spaces for students to talk about their mental state.
“The meetings are also supposed to help students speak freely and open up to others in a judgement-free environment,” Ballman said.
Students for Students was not created overnight. It has taken weeks of planning and communication to make it happen. As with many other programs, the initiative hit a roadblock during quarantine. To make matters worse, the logistics of the program have been slightly complicated by MCPS policies regarding Zooms.
“Corona really threw a wrench into the works of the peer support group I was planning on piloting this school year,” Ballman said. “Instead we decided to pivot to a virtual version. With this decision, though, there is a lot more red tape involved due to privacy concerns.”
As someone who has spent four years in the WCHS environment, Ballman first-hand how stressful school can be. In fact, his own experiences and the feedback of many others at WCHS is largely what led Ballman to create Students for Students.
“It can be a very competitive and isolating environment for a lot of students, so I was hoping a group like that would give students a new outlet,” Ballman said.
Students for Students is just one of Ballman’s many projects. He has been working hand-in-hand on Mental Health America’s Youth Council, an organization dedicated to destigmatizing mental health. Ballman has also spent the past few weeks tirelessly lobbying for mental health reform via the Maryland State Legislature.
“Mental health is an extremely important topic that I hope to shed some light on. The more people that understand the complexities surrounding it, the better,” Ballman said.