Hillel Day School incorporates Prepare U into their curriculum preparing students with the tools needed to maintain their mental health.

Featured photo courtesy of Prepare U

On a recent chilly Tuesday morning, eighth graders at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit sat in a circle, journals in hand and pondered a text from Rabbi Abraham Kook (1865-1935):

“But know the reality in which you live. Know yourself and your world. Know the thoughts of your heart, and of all who speak and think.”

In a first for Jewish day schools, Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills is teaching Prepare U, an evidence-supported, experiential mental health curriculum for adolescents that was created by local therapist and Hillel alumnus Ryan Beale.

To adapt it for their Jewish students, Hillel faculty infused the arc of 15 lessons covering topics such as anger, anxiety and stress, grief and family systems, social media, relationships and self-reflection. Midway through the course, students discuss signs and the aftermath of suicide. In many of the classes, students sit in a circle as a teacher directs them through what often are deep conversations about mental health.

Throughout the workbook are pages left blank for self-reflection, plus self-care tips and national hotlines for suicide prevention, domestic abuse and LGBT teens.

Prepare U is taught in select high schools in six states, including Michigan. Now in its second year at Hillel, the course there is funded by a grant from the Michael Kroopnick Family Endowment Fund for Healthy Emotional Development and Resilience.

There is a mental health crisis among the country’s schoolchildren. Locally, the Jewish Federation’s 2016 study, Jewish Community Health and Social Welfare Needs Assessment, confirmed the high rates of anxiety and stress or experiences with a mental illness — about 50 percent — among teens in Detroit’s Jewish community.

Doris Gold, 13, reviews some of her Prepare U coursework at Hillel School. By Stacy Gittleman

Hillel faculty members Nicole Miller and Kimberly Love said that Prepare U was developmentally appropriate for the school’s eighth-graders and a good response to the Federation findings.

So far this year, Love observed that students are working to reveal their vulnerabilities as they discuss academic and social struggles or feeling stressed or left out. Most of all, Love said they are building community and learning that it is OK to say when you are not OK to get the resources and help you need.

“Students are beginning to open up and connect and build a sense of community,” Love said. “Just like the duality themes that we studied from Parshah Noah, there is someone in your class who is just like you, who is going through the same things you are. Ultimately, we are building up to the lesson that if you are dealing with grief or suicidal thoughts, you do not have to go through them alone. There is always help.”

Beale, co-author of Prepare U, was inspired to create Prepare U after he endured several family tragedies, including his brother’s 2009 suicide. In follow-up studies of participating students 18 months after completing Prepare U, Beale said that after consistent participation, 20 percent of the students surveyed are actively using the tools and knowledge they’ve learned.

Gabe Cozzetto, 14, of Birmingham reflects on a lesson on mental health in his Prepare U journal. By Stacy Gittleman

“The students who retained the material are reporting a 35 percent decrease in distressing symptoms of anxiety and depression,” Beale said. “But in order to see tangible results like this, schools (implementing Prepare U) need to fully commit. The sequence of the lessons was created in an intentional arc. Prepare U gives students the tools they need for themselves and their peers to cope; we are giving them tools of social support that may lead to suicide prevention.”

Hillel student Doris Gold, 13, of West Bloomfield said the course is teaching her the importance of self-expression.

“I know that is something my classmates and I have a hard time with, but journaling is a great way to open up and get out our thoughts and emotions,” Gold said. “Writing it all down helps you figure out the good and the bad things in your life and can lead you to know where and how to ask for help.”

Gabe Cozzetto, 14, of Birmingham, said when it comes to forming good. healthy relationships in life, the first person you should know is yourself. Keeping a journal is a great self-discovery tool.

“The classes are a deep dive in helping me figure out what’s going on within myself and to check in on my mental health,” Cozzetto said. “If you don’t know yourself well first, it’s hard to interact with others. You have to know yourself first before you can form strong trusting friendships and improve the lives around you.”

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Stacy Gittleman is an award-winning journalist and has been a contributing writer for the Detroit Jewish News for the last five years. Prior to moving to Metro Detroit in 2013, she was a columnist and feature writer for Gannett's Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, NY. She also manages social media pages for other local non-profit organizations including the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Contact her with breaking news and feature story ideas that impact Detroit's Jewish community at stacy.gittleman@yahoo.com