Work2BeWell gives teens a voice and support in the treatment of their mental health

Hailey Hardcastle was always what her grade-school teachers called “a worrier.” As early as age six, she would fret over seemingly little things that wouldn’t bother most kids. Some days, she wouldn’t even be able to complete her schoolwork; other days, she’d have breakdowns and full-blown panic attacks. “This was all happening at a time when mental health wasn’t being talked about as much as it is now,” says Hardcastle, now 19. “Especially youth mental health.” Eventually, she was diagnosed with trauma-induced anxiety and clinical depression. But even then, school resources for dealing with mental health were limited. Her family improvised: Hardcastle’s mother gave her three mental health rest days each semester. As long as Hardcastle kept up her grades, she could use one of these days whenever she felt like she needed a break. Sometimes she would use all three days; other semesters she wouldn’t use any. Just knowing they were there kept her happy, healthy, and successful.

In fact, Hardcastle was so successful that in 2017 she became president of the Oregon Association of Student Councils (OASC). Her high school in Sherwood, Ore., had recently been shaken by several teen suicides, and in talking with other OASC representatives, she learned that, whether in rural Oregon or downtown Portland, students throughout the state were also dealing with suicide and other mental health issues. Hardcastle and her colleagues resolved to act. The OASC joined forces with Providence Health & Services to create Work2BeWell. Work2BeWell is a teen-driven digital wellness program sponsored by Providence that promotes mental health in children and teens. The core of the program is providing free clinically vetted resources — such as videos, literature, and lesson plans — to educators and students. All curriculum is produced through a partnership between teens, educators, and licensed mental health professionals. But it also enables students to become advocates for mental health with other students, adults, educators, and legislators.

“With the rates of these teen suicides continuing to skyrocket, it was pretty obvious that what we had been doing wasn’t working,” says Dr. Robin Henderson, chief executive of Behavioral Health for Providence Oregon. “We needed to do something else. And the best person to speak with a youth is another youth.”

With the rates of these teen suicides continuing to skyrocket, it was pretty obvious that what we had been doing wasn’t working.

Even in 2017, programs for mental health in schools were rare. The materials that did exist in the classroom were often written in a stiff, clinical voice that was barely relatable to most adults, much less teenagers. “There weren’t a lot of mental health memes out there,” says Henderson. “We needed to make it in a language that teens speak.” Providence attended the OASC summer camps in 2018, where professionals such as Henderson presented clinical tools to the students, who then gave their feedback on how to translate the material for youth. The result was the basis for videos and classes on subjects such as how to talk with relatives about politics during the holidays, how to deal with online trolls and bullying, and building an emotional first aid tool kit to deal with stress and anxiety. They also talked about building a positive overall atmosphere in schools.

“Twenty years ago, that meant dances and school spirit rallies and making posters,” says Sara Nilles, who was the Oregon state director for student leadership at the time. “Our students wanted to make a bigger impact beyond better school lunches and the old platforms. They’re going deep into how we can create schools that are safe and happy.” These ongoing discussions produced dozens of clinically vetted materials that are now available to any educator or teen online, completely free of charge, at the Work2BeWell website. There are complete modules about the mental health impacts of racism, trauma, aspirational goals, and grades. There are also flyers, memes, and posts about depression, suicide, and grief. The students also developed a podcast, “Talk2BeWell”, hosted by Dr. Henderson featuring students discussing their own mental health issues.

The program is also geared to be quickly responsive to the urgent needs of the day. For instance, new modules have been posted on how to talk about structural racism and social justice in light of the recent protests. There are also conversations on Talk2BeWell about dealing with isolation and loneliness during the pandemic. In fact, with so many students now participating in remote learning, this online mental health model might be more crucial than ever. “We know that schools are in flux,” says Justin Crowe, Vice President of Education Programs and Partnerships at Providence. “With our website, you can pull a module about emotional CPR without having to go through training. It’s right there to help now.” These lessons and materials are available to any teacher or student anywhere. But now schools within the Providence and affiliate footprint can also go deeper by becoming a Work2BeWell School. Once accepted, these schools will be formal partners with the program, with pre-access to beta forms of new curriculum, social media integration with Work2BeWell platforms, and connections to local behavioral health leaders. In the winter of 2021, the schools will also get additional advocacy support, student advisory council coordinator support, and a spotlight on digital platforms. Work2BeWell schools include pre- and post-tests to evaluate the effectiveness of the program for the students.

“Work2BeWell fits perfectly into Providence’s broader education and mental health strategy,” says Henderson. “The Work2BeWell program is part of Providence’s renewed commitment to support educators and students across all of the communities the network serves, which is rooted in the heritage of the sisters of Providence and Saint Joseph Health,” says Crowe. Finally, Work2BeWell does more than just give teenagers a voice in their own mental health treatment and awareness through the curriculum. It also provides support with which they can advocate for themselves outside of the classroom. In 2019, Hardcastle and her fellow OASC leaders helped introduce House Bill 2191 to the Oregon State Legislature. Once it passed, the new law ensured that Oregon high schoolers could take mental health days off from school as excused absences. Hardcastle says the measure is not only important in that it gives students a break if they need one. It also enables school administrators and counselors to keep track of those absences and, hopefully, catch someone who is struggling before it’s too late. The law also destigmatizes mental health among teens. “It is always okay to not be okay,” says Hardcastle. “And it’s always okay to take a break.”

Please know there’s always help available whenever you need to talk to someone. Reach out to the Crisis Text Line (Text TALK to 741741) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK to talk to someone who can help.