Though the need to normalize mental health education at schools is crucial, many educators have found such campaigns tend to be underwhelming.

Geffen Academy at UCLA has taken matters into its own hands with its Mental Health Education Institute. The summer program shows educators how to teach about the foundations of mental health in the classroom — including the use of personal stories to educate students and using a common language to normalize mental health discussions.

Now in its third year of sharing the curriculum with educators throughout North America, the number of attendees has nearly doubled since its kickoff in 2021. And the feedback from those taking the program, which is offered at the Geffen Academy’s campus in Westwood and online, has been positive.

“Implementing this model has been a game changer for our district,” said Kristina LaMendola, a social worker at Hamburg High School in Hamburg, New York. “We’ve seen the stigma decrease, and more students are asking for help.”

After attending the institute in 2022, LaMendola extended what she had learned into a two-day training for her district’s employees. Now, she’s fielding requests from other local districts who want to host her on their sites. “It’s been an honor to share this work,” she said.

In fact, the program even caught the attention of California’s First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who visited the campus Nov. 2 to see the curriculum in action. She spoke with current and former students about how attending Geffen Academy impacted them personally, and later published an Instagram post lauding the academy and expressing her desire for bringing similar programs to all children in California.

A day in the wellness curriculum

On a sunny morning in July, Geffen Academy welcomed 23 educators to its three-day program, filling an airy, hangar-like dinning and multi-purpose room adjacent to a succulent garden on campus. The bulk of in-person participants represented the Los Angeles and Beverly Hills unified school districts, with the rest coming from Northern California. An additional 23 virtual attendees, hailing from schools around the country as well as Canada, streamed live.

Ross Szabo, wellness director at Geffen Academy and head of the Mental Health Education Institute, opened with a slideshow of personal family portraits from what looked like a healthy, happy upbringing in Pennsylvania. But he wasted no time in sharing the subtext of the photos as they appeared, disclosing the underlying mental health disorders, addiction and trauma experienced by members of his family.

“Whenever I show my family photo, I always think it’s important to pause and have you think about your family photo,” Szabo said, stressing the importance of recognizing family history both biologically and environmentally to understand one’s own mental health experience.

The last photo was Szabo’s high school portrait, taken around the time he was first held at a psychiatric hospital following a mental health crisis and suicide attempt. Szabo says the incident marked the origin of his speaking and advocacy career to destigmatize mental illness — and what influenced the storytelling model that normalizes conversations about mental health in classrooms.

“I shared with you a really deep, intentional, tense and vulnerable personal story — and transitioned it back to you and to society,” Szabo said to the class. “In those moments, a lot of you probably thought about yourself and your own experiences.”

Social studies teacher Marissa Long, who attended the institute in July, has wasted no time in applying this storytelling model to her classes at Beverly Vista Middle School in Beverly Hills, Calif. “It was super powerful,” she reported back to Szabo’s team. “The students were a completely captive audience. One student stayed after class to thank me for being so ‘honest and real.’”

‘The experts in the room’

Tracy Wallace, a wellness educator at the academy and instructor for Geffen Academy, explained how under the curriculum, her students become the “experts in the room” during her psychology classes. “They are incredibly comfortable talking about their experiences with mental health,” Wallace said. “I learn from them all the time. There’s just no stigma.” 

Wallace recognizes that this model can be more challenging for teachers whose subjects don’t relate to mental health like Lilas Lane, who teaches middle school history and gender studies at Harvard-Westlake Middle School in Los Angeles. “We are skilled experts in our subjects, but we’re not therapists,” Lilas said, adding that she struggles to find the time to fit it all in. “That’s why I came to this institute. I don’t know what to do.”

Wallace led Lilas and other teachers in an exercise on how to apply a mental health element to subject matter so that it’s not an additional responsibility.

“It’s not the time to convey a new subject. It’s instead, ‘How do I push into my subject by tying in some of these messages or this language?’” Wallace said. If discussions around mental health align best with science or biology classes, she says, use those classes to engage students. Then agree on a common language around mental health to be used at the school.

“The language you hear us using about mental health literacy is the big shift,” said Sibyll Catalan, founder and head of school at Geffen Academy. “That and the fact that we are not a therapeutic school.”

Catalan – who has spent her career at the intersection of education, policy and children’s well-being – says while schools that function as therapy centers hold a special place, Geffen Academy is alternatively built on the idea of rigorous academics balanced with wellness.

When it became clear Geffen Academy’s humane environment bred a certain academic depth, Catalan and Szabo said they felt accountable for sharing the curriculum as widely as possible. For Catalan, that meant the exciting opportunity to create a network of teachers helping other educators shape the communities in which they work.

“(This is) really expanding a fellowship of folks who haven’t been through this training, and finding other ways to stay in touch and do the work,” she said. “It’s really an extraordinary moment.”