On a Thursday afternoon at George Washington High School, a medical student offers a group of high schoolers a cup of marbles. He instructs each of the students to take one and place it in a corresponding jar labeled with the amount of sleep each of them got the previous night. Once the high schoolers finish, most of the marbles have landed in the jar labeled “five hours or less.” The medical student goes on to explain how most high school kids ideally need more than nine hours of sleep a night, a statement that receives some raised eyebrows.
“I know that’s easier said than done,” he admits, but goes on to offer some helpful tips about how the students can fall asleep quickly and feel more rested when they wake.
At a station across the room, another medical student explains to his group that depression is more complex than someone just being sad. At the table to his left, students are discussing the differences between healthy and unhealthy stress. At the fourth and final station, another medical student answers her group’s questions about anxiety medication.
This is just one of nine Mental Health Outreach sessions students from CU Anschutz Medical Campus are conducting in UpLift Classrooms at five Denver high schools throughout March and April. One of the major goals of the program is to teach students about the importance of mental health while challenging the taboo of talking about it openly. Mental Health issues are real, but, as a satirical video shown at the beginning of the program points out, we often treat them much differently than we do other physical ailments. Throughout the program, the medical students describe chemical processes and even bring out models of the brain—very popular with the high schoolers—to demonstrate the tangible realities of mental health that often seem intangible.
As the medical students prepare to leave for the day, they are bombarded with more questions. Once they have finally packed up, they leave the class with brochures listing mental health resources, should they need them.
A week later at CU Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, a class of UpLift middle school students are fully decked out in lab coats, gloves, masks, and safety glasses as they prepare to enter the lab. They have already busted some brain myths, and now they’re ready to see the real thing. This is part of the WeLLCOMe (Wellness, Lifelong Learning, and Career Orientation Mentorship) Program, which for the past several years has taught middle schoolers about the plasticity of the brain.
Maureen Stabio, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology, along with dozens of volunteer students and staff, has used the concept of the brain’s ability to change to illustrate to kids that they are capable of learning and mastering new skills.
“You hear kids say things like ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘I’m not good at that,’” explains one staff member as he watches the students move to different stations where they can handle different organs and bones, create brain slices, and experience first-hand how quickly the brain can adapt to new sensory input. “We want this program to show kids that practice is key to getting better.” Indeed, throughout the day, volunteers reiterate how the brain can create and strengthen new pathways as a result of repeated practice and healthy habits.
After students have removed their gloves and washed their hands for good measure, they head down the hall for a panel with three current graduate students to learn more about college and careers in the medical field. Once the floor is opened for questions, students ask about everything from scholarships to how to cope with moving to a new school. As this is one of the largest groups that will be visiting, it isn’t surprising that the panel comes to a close before all the students’ many questions can be answered.
Though the program is conducted seven times throughout the spring with groups from six different middle schools, Anschutz Medical Campus has no trouble in finding enough volunteers; so many students sign up to help that most of them only get one shift each. It is thanks to these enthusiastic helpers that Colorado UpLift students are exposed to hands-on science and new ideas. There is no doubt that both the WeLLCOMe and Mental Health Outreach Programs will leave a lasting impact on kids and continue to thrive in the coming years.