Program offers free curricula, teaching guides, podcasts focused on mental health
By LISA EISENHAUER
RENTON, Wash. — The Work2BeWell posts on Instagram were what caught the attention of 17-year-old Melisa Shafiee.
"They have a very colorful, vibrant social media account full of posts encouraging people to take care of themselves as well as do a bunch of other mental health practices," says Shafiee, a senior at Bellevue High School near Seattle.
High school senior Melisa Shafiee, left, and Dr. Robin Henderson, chief executive for behavioral health at Providence Oregon and chief clinical officer of Work2BeWell, tape a podcast on social anxiety along with three other students who joined remotely. The podcast is for the Talk2BeWell series that focuses on issues of concern to teenagers.
The Instagram posts led Shafiee to find out more about Work2BeWell. The Providence St. Joseph Health program provides free clinician-vetted mental health and wellness resources for teenagers, parents and educators and promotes them across social media platforms.
As soon as Shafiee learned that the program had a national student advisory council, she applied. She's now part of that council, consulting along with the 32 other members on the curricula, podcasts and other resources Work2BeWell produces.
Shafiee especially likes helping craft the podcasts, called Talk2BeWell. "I think they're really effective at getting into students' minds and helping them through real struggles," she says.
She is one of four students featured along with Dr. Robin Henderson, chief executive for behavioral health at Providence Oregon and chief clinical officer of Work2BeWell, in a 30-minute Talk2BeWell podcast about how social anxiety affects mental health. The episode posted on Providence's social media platforms in October. The other students were from Pennsylvania, Nevada and Washington state.
Henderson says having young voices guiding the content has been a key driver in the expansion of Work2BeWell, which has had downloads of resources reach as high as 6,000 per month. "Our best sources are the students themselves," she says.
Desperate for resources
Henderson and Mary Renouf, vice president of clinical and consumer communication for Providence, founded Work2BeWell about five years ago after Providence's behavioral health team answered a call from the executive director of the Oregon Association of Student Councils who was seeking advice for a school district in the Portland, Oregon, area on how to deal with a spate of student and teacher suicides. "The high schools were desperate to have resources," Renouf recalls.
The Providence team met with students, parents, educators and school administrators in Oregon. The team came up with guides for how to have conversations with someone who appeared to be mentally distressed. Those guides served as building blocks that were developed into
Work2BeWell's first eight pieces of curricula.
By December 2017, Providence had formed a partnership with the Oregon Association of Student Councils to provide continuing counsel and resources on mental health. By the next summer, the partnership had set up a "teen focus group" to start conversations on mental health issues and advocate for policy changes.
When a member of the focus group suggested that kids need to be able to take time away from school to tend to their mental health needs, the Providence team linked up the students in the focus group with the system's advocacy experts. The students began a lobbying campaign that led Oregon lawmakers in 2019 to pass one of the first state laws that allows students to have excused absences to tend to their mental health just as they would for the flu or a cold. Twelve states now have similar laws.
When Henderson asked students she met at a summer camp about what topics they thought she should cover on the series of shows she was hosting as part of a contract between Providence and iHeart Radio, she says they gave her enough ideas to fill her show calendar for the entire school year.
Some of those students told her they wanted to get more deeply involved in the discussions. The team behind Work2BeWell then set up an advisory council with a few students from the West Coast. Some of the students started joining Henderson on her iHeart Radio show to share their take on issues.
Meanwhile, the Providence team also was using the student advisers' suggestions as well as those coming from educators to build out the Work2BeWell website. The website was filling with free downloadable curricula and other resources for educators and community groups. The topics include stress, suicide prevention, loss and grief, and relationships.
In 2019, Providence opened applications for its first Work2BeWell National Student Advisory Council to kids from across the country. The council's current makeup includes several students from the West Coast as well as teenagers from Montana, Georgia, Massachusetts, Nevada, Maryland, Texas and Pennsylvania.
Students who are 18 or younger can apply for the council. Work2BeWell team members and clinician advisers make the final selection. Parents have to submit permission forms before students can participate. Council members serve for a school year on one of three teams — access, education and activation. Each team gets guidance from a Work2BeWell mentor.
Renouf says the council, with students of various genders, cultures and races, "represents most of the flavor of the United States."
She points out that it was vital to hear from students across the country as Providence began to promote Work2BeWell nationally. The issues teens face aren't monolithic, she notes. While some kids say their big worry is finding a prom date, others say they live in fear of the gun violence in their neighborhood.
Henderson says the students on the advisory council get the final say on the curricula modules. The students once even vetoed an entire lesson plan that focused on the challenges faced by black, indigenous and youth of color because they didn't think it was relatable as presented.
"We had a really great idea for a set of curriculum," she recalls. "We went out and hired a consultant and did all the things and said, 'Here it is, it's really great.' And they looked at us and went, 'No.'"
Social media memes like this one, along with school curricula and podcasts, are among the tools that the Work2BeWell program run by Providence St. Joseph Health uses to offer encouragement and mental health support to the young audience it tries to reach.
The revised curriculum on the same topic was crafted to better reflect the issues students face, Henderson says, and is among the most popular on the Work2BeWell website. The takeaway from that experience, she says, was that students must be in on the resource-building process from the start.
Relevant and timely
The Work2BeWell team strives to match the resources on the website and the topics discussed on Talk2BeWell podcasts with what students are dealing with in real time. When the pandemic turned life on its head for students in 2020, many Talk2BeWell episodes dealt with the impact, such as how seniors were coping with missing out on cherished traditions and how outrage and protests over racial injustice and police killings of unarmed Blacks were playing out amid COVID-19 protocols that discouraged or prohibited large gatherings.
Talk2BeWell itself had to adjust to the times because of infection prevention rules. Instead of convening at least some of the students at a recording studio, the podcasts became Facebook Live events with all the participants logging in remotely.
The podcasts are no longer broadcast live but they remain virtual productions, with Henderson and panelists able to participate from anywhere in the country.
Suicide, anxiety and substance abuse are among the many emotion-charged mental health topics that Work2BeWell explores. Henderson notes that Work2BeWell also encourages and facilitates discussions of other timely subjects that are outside the traditional scope of health care. For example, Talk2BeWell has had podcasts on the Black Lives Matter movement and the Ukrainian refugee experience.
Renouf says as of this year, Work2BeWell curricula is being used in every state, mostly at the high school level. Among the most popular teaching tools are those that delve into structural racism, equity and inclusion.
Providence is pursuing grant funding to develop age-appropriate curricula for middle schools. "Obviously, the earlier you can get to students the better success you'll have with either getting them to not have a mental health issue or to address it or to seek help sooner rather than later," Renouf notes.
Teaming up with Ken Burns' crew
Eleven partners, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Texas Association of Student Councils, support Work2BeWell and share the program's resources.
The Work2BeWell team is currently developing curricula in partnership with the creators of the documentary "Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness." Ken Burns was the executive producer of the four-part series that aired on PBS stations over the summer.
Henderson says the plan is to convene people from the production crew, educators, school administrators, clinical experts and students to create 24 pieces of curricula that pair with the documentary that can be used in classrooms and by youth programs. She and her partners on the project hope to have the lesson plans ready next spring.
In addition to creating the curricula, podcasts and the other resources, the team behind Work2BeWell and their student advisers have become popular guest speakers at education-related events. Henderson says they are featured at about a dozen every year. This year, two students spoke on the main stage at a gathering of the Texas Association of Student Councils that drew about 5,000 attendees.
Henderson is open to any forum that allows her to share information about how to improve students' mental health. "I'll use anything I can to connect with somebody," she says. "Good knowledge is power and we're empowering students to be able to talk about mental health, to reduce stigma, to do all the right things."
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