On February 14, 2018, tragedy struck in Broward County. A former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland gunned down 14 students and three teachers, leaving a community and nation forever shaken. More than a year after the horrific shooting, two students who attended the school at the time took their own lives — the first, it's been reported, because she could not grapple with survivor's guilt and post-traumatic stress.
Prior to the incident, it was clear the perpetrator was troubled and unable to deal with his mental health issues. However, it seems schools lack the resources to alleviate the bottled-up stress in students and removing the stigma associated in dealing with mental health.
A recent investigation by the Sun-Sentinel revealed Florida's mental health services system was severely underfunded. Additionally, schools within Broward County did not have enough counselors or dedicated mental health staff to address students' mental health needs.
The most recent count shows Broward Schools had one school psychologist for 1,630 students — the recommended ratio is 1 for 500. The district also has one social worker per 1,936 students, but the recommended average is one social worker for 250 students.
To fix the mental health system in schools state-wide, the Florida Department of Education on July 17 approved a requirement for all districts to provide at least five hours of instruction to middle school and high school students related to youth mental health awareness and assistance.
However, a group of students is taking it upon themselves to make mental health a priority through their student-led, more kid-friendly approach to mindfulness.
Immediately following the Parkland tragedy, Fort Lauderdale High School alum Mallory Malman, 18, a junior at the time, created Brightcasters. The after-school mental wellness club spreads positivity and encourages support among students and teachers in order to the minimize the levels of stress in the school environment.
"When I got to high school, I noticed how much stress was in my peers and how much negativity there is, especially on social media," Malman tells New Times. "Then the Parkland shooting of last year really aggravated that and really put everyone into a panic mode, so I wanted to do something to fix that and help people around me."
Malman started practicing mindfulness techniques when she was 13, after her father died of brain cancer.
"It was pretty rough adjusting and I found mindfulness through my life coach and it really helped me. I did meditation and visualization," Malman says. "I used to be a competitive tennis player, so the visualization helped me with that aspect too. I really just found these techniques (helpful), and integrating them into my daily life helped with the stress."
Seeing how the different techniques reduced her own stress, Malman approached three friends from her mock trial team, rising seniors Alexa Sedaka, Jake Lynch, and Fernando Davila, and they immediately jumped on board to shed light on the importance of addressing mental health and stress reduction.
“When I was younger when my parents initially got divorced, it was a lot to handle and the stress of being the older sibling. It’s been very stressful even to this day. With everything I have learned throughout the years, when I went to a therapist or when I did my visualizations or went to my safe space, it really did help me,” Sadaka tells New Times. “People were ignoring [mental health] or they thought they were the only one. By bringing attention to mental health, I feel like it is enriching people to be more engaged.”
With the support of teachers Dan Katz and Jill Malman, who both use mindfulness techniques, the students began holding weekly meetings.
“We always do an opening two- or three-minute breathing, a group share, and then we get into our specific activity," Mallory Malman says. “We have to explain the science behind it, so they understand why it makes sense or how it is going to help. After the activity, we do a longer meditation that is based on the activity so they can really focus on what they want to do and put out there for themselves. Then we do another share with whatever came up and we have our closing meditation."
Initially, it was difficult for the other students to open up during the meetings, especially during the group share, when students tell what is happening in their lives. But they soon realized it was a safe, confidential space led by students just like themselves.
“Having the group led by us really helps to provide a safe space for students. It makes them feel like they are allowed to talk — we will listen, and no one will judge you," Davila says. “High school is always full of stress, whether its homework, projects, or whatever it is. We always have a group to talk to that will listen.”
Not only does the club help reduce stress, but also brings together students who otherwise would never have the chance to meet, considering the 2,000-member student population.
“Our very first meeting was really cool — we were in a circle and the kids were sharing, and one student said, ‘I am so stressed out about math. I can’t take it.’ Another ninth-grader asked, ‘What math class are you in?’ and the stressed student said, “I’m in geometry.” The other student said, 'I can help you with that,'” Jill Malman says. "We didn’t know that would come up for somebody. The students got together one-on-one because of this.”
During the group meetings and out-of-school workshops, the students bring in guest speakers, such as a sound-healing person, an aroma theory instructor, and an international motivational speaker.
“Many of us are involved in mindfulness things outside of school and as soon as we talk about Brightcasters, you will be surprised by how many people want to get involved. So many professionals really want to help," Katz tells New Times. “Our sound healer gave us a workshop for free because he loved the concept. Same thing with our international speaker. She did two workshops for us and she speaks all over the world. But she gave up her time for Brightcasters because she just believes this type of thing is really going to save our planet.”
Another unique component of Brighcasters is “brightcasting,” where individuals are encouraged to go to their website to post a "positive" every day. Based on Mallory's understanding of the Polyvagal theory, which explains that individuals tend to focus on the negative in their lives, the students created different techniques like brightcasting and compliment cards to change people's thinking through positivity. There are now people as far away as Australia going onto the group's website to brightcast.
Wanting to expand their vision, the students decided to enter into a Lead4Change challenge. Lead4Change is a student leadership program dedicated to empowering different student-led organizations by teaching them how to develop their lesson plans. Competing against more than 50 schools nationwide, Brightcasters finished in the top five, winning a $10,000 donation and becoming fully incorporated as a non-profit organization.
"Their lessons enabled us to do to look at how Brightcasters can systemically go global and help so many more people, so I think that simplicity and the user-friendliness of their program helped us change," Katz says.
Through the program, the students solidified their 15-lesson curriculum, which will be implemented at Temple Beth-El in Boca Raton and at Sawgrass Middle School. The organization also has branches at Florida Atlantic University and soon Florida State University, where Mallory will be attending in the fall. The group is looking to open chapters at other universities and also expand into the corporate sector.
"What started as an after-school club has really taken on a life of its own," Katz says.