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By Kaylee Davis-Bordovsky, M.D.,
APAF Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellow,
University of Texas Southwestern
Now more than ever, mental health is such an important topic to talk about with youth. Stress and anxiety are at an all-time high with the pandemic and increased isolation. Schools are the perfect place to address students’ mental well-being while also increasing mental health knowledge and promoting help-seeking behavior. To do this, there are many programs and curriculums available, but schools are getting creative with the tools they are providing to students. Some schools focus on mindfulness and relaxation, others on exercise or expression through the arts. Here, I would like to highlight two innovative takes on mental health implementation.
The first is the invention of the “Chill Room” started by the Chill Project in Pittsburgh, PA. Through a partnership with Allegheny Health Network, the Chill Project provides different resources to promote mental health and mindfulness in the school setting. One of these resources is a room designated for students to do just what it is called… chill! A relaxing ambiance awaits students to help decrease anxiety and stress. The room may have stringed lighting, private coves, natural plants, a cozy fireplace, or the sound of trickling water. Ultimately, it provides a calming and safe environment for students to take a break.
A contracted mental health professional staffs these rooms to help students by:
Students cycle in and out throughout the day when needed, usually for 10-15 minutes each, where they practice mindfulness, work on breathing exercises, or just remove themselves from a stressful situation. Students’ needs are addressed on an individualized basis. Even if it is just for a few moments, the Chill Room transports students to a relaxing environment away from the stress and anxiety of school and peers. To date, there are about 20 Chill Rooms in various schools in the Pittsburgh region that have been formed over the last three years, and the number is growing! One of these rooms is at Carlynton Junior/Senior High School – a school in Carnegie, PA that was awarded APAF’s Notice. Talk. Act. ® at School Grant for the 2021-2022 school year.
The mental health professionals staffing the rooms work collaboratively with others in the Chill Project to form a cohesive team engrained into the school system and provide multifaceted mental health resources to students and schools. Not only is this project “chill”, but it has also showed positive outcomes. According to Allegheny Health Network, “Participating schools have experienced a reduced number of behavioral health incidents for students, like chronic absence, disruptive behavior, dropping out, and feelings of hopelessness." Thus, the Chill Room really has the potential to help students and their mental health. View more information on The Chill Project here.
While the “Chill Room” is designed to focus on mindfulness, some schools are taking a different approach. The second innovative method schools are taking to address mental health awareness is approaching it through the lens of social media and technology. Though there are several similar programs, I would like to highlight one in Texas called Project Mental Health Awareness. This is a student-led, peer-peer project that facilitates students making public service announcements (PSAs). Instead of assigning a topic for students to learn about, it is up to them to pick a mental health topic of their choice.
What do you feel is a problem in your school?
What do you wish you knew more about?
These are some of the questions students are prompted with before choosing the topic for their PSA. Some topics that students have chosen include:
They then script and film a PSA targeted toward their peers and provide them with an appropriate resource for their topic, such as how to learn more information or get help if needed, true to the spirit of a PSA. The PSAs are viewed in the classroom and/or around the school; students get to show off their final product and really take ownership of their work. We know that the peer-peer model works, as students are more likely to listen to their friends than their parents or teachers1. This provides primary prevention not only for the students actively making the PSAs but also for the students who view it, while promoting help-seeking behavior.
Data was collected in 2019 from 52 students attending one rural high school in Texas who completed this project. Over 80% of students felt that the project enhanced their knowledge about mental health. Also, the number of students that would be embarrassed to tell anyone that they had a mental health problem decreased by more than half after participating in the project. Though more formal research needs to be done, this preliminary data shows that this project can lead to a perceived increase in mental health knowledge while addressing attitudes and stigma.
What is so innovative about this program is that they are taking something teens are already passionate about—social media and technology—and adding a mental health component. Additionally, this program is free and can be implemented in any classroom; all it requires is a teacher willing to implement the project. As it is a student-led project, it is very little work on the educators! As the writer, I am very passionate about this program because I created it. View more information on Project Mental Health Awareness here.
If I have learned anything, it is that opportunities for implementing mental health into schools are endless. The Chill Room and Project Mental Health Awareness are just two of the many innovative approaches to addressing mental health and wellness. All it takes is one person, one idea, one inspiration, and school buy-in to promote mental health and make positive changes for the future leaders of tomorrow.