14% of your students have a suicide plan. 31% report suicidal thoughts, but 14% of them actually have a plan. 1 in 10 females reports being forced to have sex, 1 in 28 males. These numbers are all trending in the wrong direction. And they are bleak. They make your heart hurt and your chest tighten.
Think about your class. Each class of 30 or so kids, 10 have thought of suicide, 4 have a plan, one or two of the young women have been raped, fifty-fifty a young man has. These were be disturbing results from the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey as described in a NY Times article.
There was some good news,
The report did offer some encouraging trends, suggesting that the overall picture for adolescents is a nuanced one. Compared to a decade ago, fewer students reported having had sex, drinking alcohol or using drugs like cocaine, heroin or marijuana.
We have caught kids that were falling, also lost some, and those ones you lose haunt you. I covered that in my “Silent Screams” piece. These numbers and the lived experiences of our students, highlight the need for an emphasis on mental health or wellness in adolescents. Algebra 2 won’t help if you are imploding in on yourself and have no place to go for help, and no strategies to deal with your challenges.
Wellness as Part of the Curriculum
Our schools don’t need a counselor’s office where kids in apparent crisis get pulled out of class for a talk. They need a universal approach that helps all students better understand their own development, challenges, triggers, and helps them develop practical strategies to cope and prosper. Every teenager needs this. And universalizing the program destigmatizes it. Which can get us to a place where we can actually help.
I know, I know, pie in the sky… But it’s not. There are schools that see wellness as an essential part of the curriculum, and they are working. Families and students have felt the effects and recently the authorizer has recognized the model. So let’s look at how schools can support universal wellness and a program that has recruited and served high needs students.
We All Have “Our Stuff”
Integration Charter Schools in NYC was the first college preparatory public school in New York that was designed to serve students with emerging mental health challenges. We (I am on the Board) recruit students with emerging mental health challenges, and reserve seats for them, with roughly 30% of each entering class being high needs special education students.
We have a pretty simple recipe, train all staff, have one single integrated college preparatory program minimizing pullouts, and making wellness a part of the curriculum. Founder, Dr. Ken Byalin, described the school in a prior blog.
“We needed a level playing field for kids with mental illness,” says Dr. Ken Byalin, the founder of Lavelle Prep, as he explains the genesis of the school. “There were some special education programs, but there were big gaps in service as students got older.”
“There is also a set of kids who were highly impaired by mental health challenges, but academically high functioning, who again received little or no services.”
Dr. Byalin is himself a longtime social worker and program director in mental health services, and a founder of the Verrazano Foundation, which combats stigma and discrimination against those with mental illness. Having worked in mental health for decades, he was aware of some of the failed approaches. “Segregation has not worked in mental health,” he says.
Instead, he had very simple ways to do things differently. “Students need to be integrated in secondary school to be successful in college, and we need to create unitary programs, where everyone gets the same thing, and they all sit in the same classes and all learn the same things.”
That philosophy guided the school design: small classes of 17 or less, with a teacher dual-certified in both special education and a subject matter (such as algebra or English), along with highly-trained paraprofessionals. All staff get training on working with mental health challenges.
Often in “inclusive” classrooms, there are two teachers and really two simultaneous classes. Students may physically sit in the same class, but in fact different teachers are teaching different content. At Lavelle, it’s one class for everyone. As Dr. Byalin says, “There is only one program at Lavelle Prep, and everyone participates.”
Dealing With Your ‘Stuff’
All students and staff also participate in a robust wellness curriculum. We all have “stuff”—as the school lingo calls it—and we all need to learn strategies to deal with it. This begins the process of de-stigmatizing emotional challenges.
And once mental health challenges are de-stigmatized, students and families start to talk about them.
Traditionally, families are known to reject services for fear of being stigmatized, but at Lavelle families are more likely to talk about services and much more likely to accept offers of help. Sometimes they even ask for it.
Our students are in crisis. If you listen to them, you will hear that. And they need help. We need to redesign the school day and curriculum to meet their real needs. And while not every school can be a Lavelle Prep, every classroom can be more humane and make room for wellness. Our students need this more than Algebra 2.
If you need motivation, think of the 14%.