Blunt talk, from personal experience

Some schools have speakers in to share their stories of addiction and mental health issues, while others are experimenting with mindfulness.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Carl Antisell, 29, walked into Terry Wildman’s classroom at McClure Elementary School in the Hunting Park section of Philadelphia ready to talk about some serious issues in his life: anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, and the ups and downs of his mental health.

The 4th graders, all about 10 years old, were ready to listen. And to ask some pointed questions.

“When you had anxiety, what did you worry most about?”

“Why did no one stop you from drinking alcohol?”

“What was your experience like when you stopped breathing?”

Antisell answered every question about the issues he struggled with in his youth. Undiagnosed anxiety as a youngster led him to destructive behavior, first drinking and then prescription drug abuse, he said. One night, his mother found him passed out on the lawn and got him to the emergency room.

“I had no idea you could drink a potentially fatal amount of alcohol in one bottle. And I did that in 45 minutes,” Antisell told the children, who sat rapt through his entire talk.

“If I hadn’t been in the hospital, I might not have made it.”

The blunt approach is a tactic that has kindled conversations and affected lives for the last decade, said Trish Larsen, executive director of Minding Your Mind.

The nonprofit group based in Ardmore, Pa., sends Antisell and other young adults into schools and other venues to talk candidly about their brushes with addiction, mood and eating disorders, and even suicide. They emphasize how they got treatment and got better — an upbeat message for youthful audiences.

Such sharing is “the most effective way to reduce stigma and normalize mental health issues,” said Larsen.

Speakers from Minding Your Mind did about 1,500 presentations last year in city and suburban schools and other venues, reaching tens of thousands of young people, according to Larsen.

Meanwhile, students and teachers in numerous schools are being trained in “mindfulness” – breathing and yoga or other slow-motion exercises – to counter commotion in the classroom and toxic stress in their lives.

“An abundance of research … supports the many benefits that mindfulness and yoga provide for children in school — improved self-regulation, improved memory retention, improved ability to learn, and self-awareness,” said Gail Silver, an author of mindfulness books for children. She also operates afterschool programs on yoga and mindfulness.

Her new group, the School Mindfulness Project, aims to do in-school training for teachers and students.

Another group, the Inner Strength Foundation, has provided in-class instruction reaching 1,200 students in nine District high schools in Philadelphia during the last several years. Syracuse University researchers are studying the impact on student self-regulation, with early positive results.

School climate

“I have seen the climate in entire schools change for the better,” said Amy Edelstein, founder of the nonprofit.

At McClure Elementary, Melissa Carlin’s 5th-grade class learned about the value of mindfulness as part of a service learning project.

“Every day after lunch, which is usually when they are most wild, we do mindful meditation,” a combination of deep breathing and exercise, Carlin said.

The students take their seats and as a group raise their arms slowly to the count of three, then lower their arms to the count of three, again and again, for two or more minutes, she said. Or they slowly sketch the top loop of a figure 8 in the air to the count of three, then the lower loop to the same count.

“It doesn’t matter how crazy they were in the cafeteria, they want to do the mindfulness practice,” Carlin said. “They are ready to get themselves calmed down.”

The 5th graders were motivated to take up the quiet exercises after learning about Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore, which focuses on mindfulness and meditation instead of detention and suspension — and gained national publicity in the process. The principal told The Washington Post that practicing mindfulness helped students find relief from the stresses in their lives, including problems at home, violence on the streets, and conflicts with friends.

Creating a safe haven

Wildman’s 4th-grade class project on addiction also reflected stressors in the students’ lives. The children brainstormed about topics to research and decided to look at smoking, drinking, and other addictions.

“I asked, ‘Who in the classroom has been affected by drugs or alcohol?’ and everybody raised their hand. Everybody,” said Wildman.

Early in his remarks, Antisell asked whether anyone could tell him what anxiety feels like.

“It’s how you feel before a test,” one girl said.

“It’s when I’m talking to new people,” said another student.

“Sometimes when my grandma and my mom used to fight,” another quietly said.

Several times, Antisell encouraged the students to speak to someone — a teacher, a counselor, a parent — when they feel sad, or angry, or anxious.

“I was afraid to talk to somebody. I thought it would be a sign of weakness,” Antisell said. Then he added, “Asking for help is the strongest, bravest thing you can do.”

Antisell and other presenters are trained in how to respond to students who might share personal problems, and the presenters are “mandated reporters,” who must report to authorities whatever they learn of child abuse or neglect. The presenters alert a counselor or other school official anytime a student confides any disturbing intentions.

There’s reticence to share such private matters publicly, but a student can text the speaker rather than raising an issue aloud. And the speakers are available after the presentations to talk privately with any student who stays behind. The group’s goal is to educate, not counsel. The message to students is to confide in a teacher, counselor, coach, parent, or other trusted adult.

“Whether it’s depression, anxiety, mood swings, a lot of students just don’t feel comfortable about their feelings. And parents are not comfortable speaking about it and often ignore it or aren’t paying attention,” said Bruce Robinson, president of Neumann Goretti High, a Catholic school in South Philadelphia.

“Minding Your Mind has allowed us to tell this story. If you’re having these struggles, it is OK to reach out, and for friends who see someone struggling, to reach out and find help for their friend.”

At Haverford Middle School in Delaware County, an event earlier this year featuring speakers from Minding Your Mind had an immediate impact, said principal Dan Horan.

Conversation at home

The event “encouraged a lot of conversation at home, and that doesn’t happen so much with middle school kids. We got a lot of parent feedback – they had some really good conversations with their children on the topics we had covered that day,” Horan said. The school also did a half-day presentation on mindfulness and plans a session on substance abuse in May.

About 10 District schools have hosted Minding Your Mind speakers. The first program each year is free of charge, and the group requests a donation for ongoing programs. The group does fundraising to defray costs of going into schools that have limited means.

On a recent Monday, presenter Drew Bergman spent the day at Interboro High School in Delaware County, speaking to five successive health classes. In 2010, that school community was left reeling after two teens completed suicide together by stepping in front of an Amtrak train.

As an adolescent, Bergman said, he had two suicide attempts. The second time he was a sophomore and it was early on New Year’s Day 2010. He described how a high school counselor helped him turn his life around and talked about how he had learned positive coping skills, including sports, hanging with friends, positive self-talk, working out, and eating out.

“I don’t know how to turn on a stove,” he said, to chuckles.

Early in his talk, he asked the class of 16 freshmen whether they personally knew of anyone who had committed or attempted to commit suicide. Across the room, timidly at first, then almost as a group, virtually every hand went up.

One in four people will be diagnosed with a mental health issue, and suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people, Bergman said. He urged the students to identify one to three adults they can confide in and to embrace at least three to five positive coping skills.

“Our mental health, if not treated, can impact and can end our lives,” Bergman said. “So we need to make our mental health our first priority.”

Connie Langland is a freelance writer on education issues.