‘Changing and saving lives’

‘Normalizing’ mental health discussions in the classroom

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Jennifer Ulie-Wells, executive director with Please Pass the Love, gives teachers a “brain break” in the middle of her presentation during the FDCSD Learning Supports Conference at Fort Dodge Middle School on Tuesday afternoon. Ulie-Wells presented on facing and overcoming the school mental health epidemic in Iowa.

Jennifer Ulie-Wells knows firsthand what it’s like to struggle with mental health as a middle school student.

Ulie-Wells, who is the executive director of the Please Pass the Love organization, struggled with her mental health as a child and young adult, and credits her teachers and her school as becoming her “safe space” during that “chaotic” time.

Ulie-Wells hosted two presentations entitled “Facing and Overcoming the School Mental Health Epidemic in Iowa” during the Learning Supports Conference for Fort Dodge Community School District teachers and staff at the Fort Dodge Middle School on Tuesday. Ulie-Wells’ presentations were just two of many throughout the day that the 130 FDCSD educators attended.

Ulie-Wells opened up her presentation with highlighting the importance of treating a student’s mental health with the same concern one would treat the student’s physical health in relation to their success in the classroom.

“If a kid doesn’t have what they need or if they don’t have their basic health needs met, they’re not going to be able to function (in the classroom),” she said.

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Jennifer Ulie-Wells, executive director of Please Pass the Love, presents on students’ mental health during the Learning Supports Conference at Fort Dodge Middle School on Tuesday afternoon.

She laid out the grim reality of students’ mental health.

“When we talk about statistics, especially in Iowa, we have a severe mental health epidemic, a youth mental health epidemic,” Ulie-Wells said. “We know statistically 20 percent, one out of five young people, has a mental illness. We also know that not all mental illnesses are diagnosed and not all are treated. There’s a lot of people who aren’t getting the help they need.”

Along with focusing on how to help students, Ulie-Wells said the No. 1 thing that should be “incredibly alarming to us” is the suicide rate. In the state of Iowa, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people, she said.

“As adults, we have a choice to make,” she said. “These thoughts (of depression and suicide) are already here, so either we leave these thoughts alone and hope for the best, or we have these conversations, we normalize mental health and then we act as the gatekeeper to help young people get the resources that they need.”

Ulie-Wells encouraged the teachers to watch for “red flags” from their students — things that may present like simple adolescent behavior problems, like tiredness, irritability, isolating and withdrawing.

“The lens shifts when we start looking at things as symptoms versus behaviors,” she said. “As educators, sometimes we get one little glimpse of something and just brush it off.”

Glenda Harms, a challenging behavior consultant with Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency, attended the afternoon session of Ulie-Wells’ presentation. As a consultant who works with school districts across north central Iowa, Harms sees understanding as the top mental health need for educators in the districts.

“Not just thinking the kids are using it as an excuse, but to really understand where the child is coming from and then providing the services and support that they need to be successful,” she said.

Amanda Becker, an instructional coach at the middle school and an organizer of the conference, said the purpose of the conference was to get a better understanding of how to support the needs of all the district’s students.

“It’s our job to develop the whole child,” said Kim Bodholdt, a social emotional behavioral health consultant with Prairie Lakes AEA. “Not just academically, but social and emotional learning and creating an environment where they feel safe where they can learn.”

Ulie-Wells had a simple message to the educators as she closed out her presentation.

“Here’s the thing that I want you to remember,” she said. “As you’re heading into the school year, you are changing and saving lives.”