Kat Strube was “incredibly nervous” as she stood in front of 47 middle-schoolers at Christ the King Catholic School in Indianapolis. And that seemed fitting, really, for what was about to happen next.
For the next 30 minutes she and Butler University classmates Sid Garner, Alex Reinke, Maggie Nobbe, and Hannah Justice would deliver a presentation called “Understanding Anxiety,” their final project in the course “Mental Illness: Biological, Psychological, and Sociological Perspectives.”
“I’m not somebody who feels super comfortable in this setting,” Strube, a biology major, says, “but it’s an interesting project.”
As the 11- and 12-year-olds listened attentively, the Butler students went through topics such as what anxiety is, what causes it, and what are the best ways to deal with it. They made paper fortune-tellers with the kids—”a fun, useful distraction for those facing anxiety or other mental illness,” they explained—and answered the students’ questions. While one student wanted to know if any of the Butler group knew men’s basketball player Kamar Baldwin, all the other questions they asked dealt directly and seriously with the topic.
“I was super-surprised,” Strube said. “Everyone seemed receptive and to be listening. No one had their head down. Everyone participated and everyone had great questions. It’s not what you expect from middle school students. So that was pretty cool.”
Strube and her classmates were one of 12 teams from the Butler class who went out to Indianapolis-area middle schools in early December to discuss—and attempt to destigmatize—mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. The groups also delved deeper into areas including technology disorders and addictions, sleep disorders, and substance abuse.
The class, which was offered this fall for the third time, is team-taught by Professors Kate Novak (Sociology), Tara Lineweaver (Psychology), and Jennifer Kowalski (Biology). But this was the first time Butler students went into the community to share what they’d learned, including general information (6.8 million children suffer from General Anxiety Disorder), and specifics, such as breathing techniques to ease symptoms.
“We wanted our students to help middle school kids recognize the stigmas associated with mental illnesses, how the stereotypes are not true, to combat fears and worries about mental illness and to encourage them to know how to get help if they have a problem or they know someone who has a problem,” said Lineweaver.
It was not just about what the Butler students said, but who was delivering the information, Novak said. And getting into the community gave Butler students the chance to understand the implications of what they are learning in the classroom in a new, more real way.
“It’s good to have college students come and talk to middle-schoolers because they really look up to college students,” Novak said. “They’re going to take it a little more seriously. And a lot of our students have incorporated examples from their own lives. They’re saying, ‘I’m willing to talk about this.’ It’s been really good for our students, too. It gets them out and thinking about this: What does this mean in terms of people lives? They’re not just thinking about the academic component. What is a mental illness? What does the research say? How does this impact people’s lives, and how can they have an impact?”
To get the Butler students into the community, the professors teamed with the Joseph Maley Foundation, whose HOPE Program (Health through Outreach, Personal Perspectives, and Engagement) was created to bring emotional, physical, social and mental health awareness and advocacy to students in preschool through 12th grade. HOPE is one of five programs that fulfills the Maley Foundation’s mission to serve children of all abilities.
Allison Boyll, a manager with the foundation, helped arrange the Butler students’ visits to local schools, including Westfield Middle School, Indianapolis Public Schools 91, St. Richards, St. Lawrence, St. Monica, and Christ the King.
“I think anytime we can work with students in the area of mental health and help them realize that it’s a natural area of conversation and we can talk about all areas of mental health, it helps to reduce the stigma on mental health and getting the support that you need,” Boyll said. “It just makes it everyday language, so that when you do need some extra support, if you need extra support, you don’t have to be afraid to reach out to get that help.”
That was the reason Christ the King Principal Ed Seib wanted his students to see the presentation. He said mental illnesses get in the way of students being able to reach their potential. Since a social stigma exists, “we want to let them know early on that it’s something they can talk about, it’s something that can be dealt with, and we’re here for them. The presentation was a great way of opening those doors and seeing kids who aren’t that much older than they are talking to them on their terms.”
Frank Meyer, 12, a Christ the King seventh-grader who saw the presentation, said he thought it was extremely worthwhile. He learned that while talking to a friend might not always be the most helpful, it’s always good to have someone to talk to when you’re going through a tough time. He also was interested in hearing about the most common disorders among children—test anxiety and social anxiety—because he deals with those from time to time.
He said hearing from the college students let him know that he’s not alone.
And getting that message out, Professor Kowalski said, is just one of the many benefits of this course.
“It’s been a good challenge for the students to have to take the more academic information that they learned and then figure out what’s critical, what’s going to resonate with the middle-school students,” she said. “And I think it fits with the goals of the course, which are integrating these ideas, communicating about mental illness, dispelling stereotypes, things like that.”
Marc Allan MFA ’18