Students had lower risks for suicide and fewer symptoms of depression after participating in a class at Animas High School that was built on seeing their lives as heroic journeys and strong relationships among the students.
Animas High teacher Shane Nelson designed the class around author and teacher Joseph Campbell’s theory that heroes across cultures and time periods share a similar journey into the unknown where they face challenges, temptations and transformation. He helps the students see their own experiences in context of a journey.
When students can see their struggles give them skills and resiliency; it can give those challenges meaning, he said.
Lessons in the class were fluid and dealt with the challenges of the day, which made them effective, he said. Students also spent time together outside, camping, rafting and hiking, which helped to build relationships among them.
Data collected at the beginning and end of the fall semester showed that 64% of the 53 students in the class lowered their risk for suicide and depression, he said. The risk was measured using a standardized survey employed by mental health professionals. Some students were handpicked for the class and others signed up for it.
Nelson also observed the dramatic difference the class made in students’ behavior and confidence.
Riley Douglas, 16, started high school as a shy, quiet student and found the class helped her be more comfortable at school, she said.
“I have really bad social anxiety, and I had an impossible time talking to people about the simplest things, let alone my emotions,” she said.
The class helped her see the emotions and challenges she was experiencing were not that different from her peers, she said. It helped her become more open.
She said Nelson’s instruction and interest in individual students was the most powerful part of the class.
“He wants to know what the problem is specifically and finds a million different ways to help people understand and help kids get through harder times in life,” she said.
Nelson pitched the curriculum for his class, called Project Basecamp, last year to the Colorado Education Initiative, a nonprofit that works on improving the quality of public education. The group helped him develop his idea through a fellowship program and later selected it as the best mental wellness program for this school year.
The initiative is interested in finding ideas that can be replicated. Nelson said he believes other teachers can see similar reductions in symptoms of depression and improvement in mental health through his curriculum.