Trying to quickly chew a mouthful of candy as his peers escaped through the sunlit door for lunch, Washington School sixth-grader Jackson Eddy began to speak about a course called Mental Health Matters.
“When I used to walk down the street and see somebody who, you know, was talking to himself or doing things like that I would get kind of scared and try to avoid him,” Jackson said. “But now I realize, thanks to Mental Health Matters, that the disease doesn’t really define them, it’s just something that they have.
“It doesn’t really affect their personality. Even if people are talking to themselves or are really depressed, they can still be really nice people.”
The Mental Health Matters program was started by the Mental Health Association in Santa Barbara County to increase children’s’ understanding of mental health issues.
The program is tailored to each sixth-grade class. Ann Lippincott, associate director of the Teacher Education Program at UCSB’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education and a Mental Health Association board member, sits down with the teacher to develop a curriculum that fits the needs of that particular class.
“The content itself doesn’t change, but the delivery system and interactive activities are very flexible.” Lippincott told Noozhawk.
Jackie Bluestein, a sixth-grade teacher at Washington School, 290 Lighthouse Road, decided to begin teaching the program this year after learning about it from Lippincott herself during grad school at UCSB.
“I teach a very special group of students and I knew some of them would really benefit from the information in the mental health program, even in just as much as being able to identify their own feelings,” she explained. “They’re all identified as gifted students and some of them do show symptoms of struggling possibly with anxiety disorders, ADHD, ADD, and the program covers all of that.
“Typically these are not things we ever really talk about and I thought why don’t we talk about it? Let’s not make it a stigma, let’s be able to identify these feelings and show people that it’s OK to talk about this.”
In Bluestein’s class, the Mental Health Matters program was presented over two weeks, in 75-minute intervals on Mondays and Wednesdays. Other sixth-grade classrooms have had different schedules for the five-day curriculum.
The students learned about many different types of mental illnesses — schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, ADD, ADHD and eating disorders — through interactive activities like skits, poster-making, and “tea parties” with mental health facts instead of tea.
“Now I know how to react when I meet someone with a mental health problem so it (Mental Health Matters) really helped me with life and stuff,” said sixth-grader Max Kyle. “We performed a skit that showed how someone treated a person with a disorder badly and how that person felt so we could understand his feelings, and then we also acted out how a nice person would treat someone with a disorder and then they felt good. It was really fun and helpful.”
This program, unique for its interactivity and the subject matter itself, was born and bred in Santa Barbara County.
“Once upon a time, the Mental Health Association collaborated with a teacher in the Goleta Union School District named Christy Morse,” Lippincott said. “Christy’s very much interested and involved in health education. So, with the district’s sanction and in collaboration with the Mental Health Association, she created a curriculum called at the time SMILE — School Mental Illness Learning Experience. But Goleta also had a dental health program called SMILE. Dental health, mental health — it got confusing.”
The mental health program changed its name, and when Lippincott took over as chairwoman of the Mental Health Association’s education committee about four years ago, she updated and revamped the curriculum and developed additional interactive learning activities for the kids.
But why teach sixth-graders about such dark issues as schizophrenia and depression? Or eating disorders and anxiety?
“Sixth grade is such an important and precious time of life, where the students are on the cusp of entering into this big new world,” Lippincott said. “They’ve typically been in the same elementary school for the last seven years and now they’re going to junior high, and oftentimes those kinds of transitions can render a student vulnerable if they have a predisposition to mental health disorders. We want them to be aware, we want them to be educated, and we don’t want them to be frightened.”
The students certainly felt that the program had affected them in a profound way. They were eager to share all they’d learned. Shouts of “Miss Blue! Miss Blue!” rang throughout the classroom as Bluestein chose students to be interviewed by Noozhawk about their experience.
Zac Pfeifer shared what he’d learned from his final project on ADD and ADHD.
“I learned that they’re more common with boys than girls,” he said. “ADHD makes you kind of hyperactive and you’re not able to focus, and then ADD is like that but without the hyperactivity. Mental Health Matters helped me understand people who have these diseases more.”
The program not only educates the sixth-graders about these various mental health issues and heightens the students’ own personal awareness, but it also strives to eliminate the stigma that surrounds mental health disorders.
“We really want to help the kids understand that a mental health disorder is nobody’s fault, that there are treatments and it’s really nothing to be afraid of,” Lippincott said. “Just like heart disease or diabetes, it’s nobody’s fault. Hopefully, with a healthy introduction to mental health disorders, the stigma will be dispelled.”
Lippincott also hopes the program will help children recognize when they themselves need help.
“Depression is rampant!” she said. “Most depression goes up to 10 years before it’s diagnosed because there’s the denial, there’s the stigma ... developmentally, sixth-graders are ready to know this.”
Lippincott would like to see the program expand. The Mental Health Association has already been asked to develop a curriculum for younger elementary schoolchildren, as well as junior high and high school students.
Although the program has been very successful and is growing, there have been a few stumbling blocks. Some parents have been upset at the fact that ADD and ADHD have been included in the curriculum labeled as “mental health diseases.”
“I feel strongly that ADD and ADHD need to be in the curriculum because to not address them or include them is in fact buying into the stigma,” Lippincott said. “So, what we try to do is tell our stories. My daughter has a diagnosis of schizophrenia. A gal on my volunteer teaching team has a diagnosis herself of bipolar disorder. She talks about the fact that she also had ADD symptoms, which is not unusual with bipolar disorder, and what happened to her in elementary school because her teachers didn’t understand.
“I feel by talking forthrightly about these issues, the stigma will be addressed and, hopefully, the perception of mental health illnesses will begin to change.”
Annmarie Cameron, executive director of the Mental Health Association, says the program is working.
“Most of the statements that kids make about the program indicate that they have not only more understanding but also more empathy,” she said. “I can’t help but think that that will help them in their perception of peers as they grow up.”
The students began to file back from lunch to finish their last official day of elementary school (they graduated June 2).
Mental Health Matters is a program that has allowed kids to understand others and even themselves better. Jackson Eddy’s words were echoed in what every student said: The disease doesn’t define a person, it’s just a part of them and is never a reason to treat them differently.
But perhaps even more valuable is the knowledge these students have acquired about disorders that affect a widespread number of children in the adolescent stage, a time these sixth-graders are approaching. The students all emphasized that they now know they can help themselves if they ever have any of the feelings they’ve learned about —a valuable thing to know already when you’re just in sixth grade.