April 18, 2023
This is the eighth in a series of guest blogs by the 2022-23 Michigan Regional Teachers of the Year. Jennifer Sepetys is a social studies teacher at West Bloomfield High School in West Bloomfield School District.
Daily newspaper headlines regularly shine light on the current mental health crisis affecting students of all ages. I have firsthand experience with this concerning dilemma because, over the past few years, I’ve witnessed a steady uptick in my own students’ stress and anxiety levels.
This has brought on increased feelings of sadness, more incomplete assignments and even general apathy for just being in the school building. Without intervention, we risk an increase in students’ negative emotions and difficulties learning at school. Tragically, in the worst cases, it can also lead to depression and suicide.
The number of students now requiring mental health support overwhelms our existing network of counselors, school psychologists and social workers. Teachers are unable to provide much help because they’re not properly equipped to handle the support role. Though, even if we were, so much of our time outside class is already spent assisting students with curriculum challenges, we wouldn’t have enough available hours to accommodate the overflow.
With all of these limiting factors in mind, I created and developed a one-semester elective course called Positive Psychology. It’s available for all students grades 9-12, designed with the intention to help them manage stress and learn coping mechanisms that can ease symptoms, while allowing them to better navigate emotional challenges. It certainly can’t alleviate all of their struggles, but my hope is that it can help.
During the first week of class, I asked students to anonymously fill out a sticky note and list something causing them stress or anxiety. At the end of class, students turned in the notes face down on my desk and I arranged them all on a poster for the class to review the next day. While creating this poster, I read through the notes, and I cried. What an overwhelming amount of pain these kids are living with. I felt just the emotional power of this introductory collage validated the need for my course.
The next day when we read through all the entries on the poster, something transformational happened in the classroom. Each student realized everyone is going through something difficult. Everyone is dealing with hardship; they aren’t the only one feeling lonely or anxious or recovering from past trauma. An immediate sense of community resulted, along with more empathy. The classroom became a safe and supportive environment. And when I reminded them to be kind to everyone every day, I truly think the words had meaning, landing with more impact.
Following this initial exercise, I told the class this course isn’t about solving all the problems on the poster – I admitted I couldn’t do that. But, ideally, the class would help each of them learn positive interventions, resilience interventions and cognitive strategies to manage anxiety, as well as increase positive emotions based on evidence. Over the course of the semester, we would cover topics such as happiness, well-being, grit, resilience, growth mindsets, character strengths, mindfulness, hope and gratitude. So far, I’ve taught three sections of the class each of the last two semesters (30+ students per class), and I’ve already had kids and parents asking if I would consider making it a year- long course. I see this as a great sign that it’s making a difference.
According to the CDC’s “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Data Summary and Trends Report: 2011-2021” reviewing trends in mental health for U.S. high school students, “more than 4 in 10 (42%) students felt persistently sad or hopeless, and nearly one-third (29%) experienced poor mental health.”
Clearly, the need for help is now greater than ever. Governor Gretchen Whitmer earmarked $300 million for per-pupil payments in our 2023-24 education budget to support school mental health over two years. Currently, 31n and 31o help fund mental health professionals across the state in schools. Funding, ESMH, professional development and evidence-based mental health programs must continue to be a priority because Michigan students deserve to feel safe, healthy and welcome in our schools.
For any other teachers potentially interested in starting their own positive psychology course, please don’t hesitate to reach out
(click to open email). I’ll happily provide more information and an overview. We’re always strongest when we work together.