Today I spoke with Ms. Jennifer Ulie-Wells, the Founder of Please Pass the Love, which is an organization that helps youth struggling with mental illness. All parents and educators should check out this website for more information: https://www.pleasepassthelove.org/
Please tell us a little about yourself, what drew you to mindful education, and the Please Pass the Love mission.
When I was a teacher, I worked with so many kids struggling to understand and regulate their emotions. It was so frustrating to feel helpless as a teacher, because at the time I had little training and understanding of what was happening.
As a child and teenager, I experienced numerous traumas resulting in my own struggles with mental health. At 12, I decided for the first time I didn’t want to live anymore. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want anymore chaos and pain. Luckily, I had amazing adults and some friends at school that made me feel valued and important. My passion comes from not wanting young people to ever feel alone in their thoughts, their pain, because their is immense hope through time and treatment, including mindfulness. As adults, we owe it to our children to do better than we have been in making mental wellness a priority.
Please Pass the Love was born out of realizing that our schools are not adequately equipped, prepared, nor trained to work with exceptional neurodiversity, including mental health. So we work with schools to increase mental health literacy, system level sustainable changes, and ongoing assessment, action planning, and training for schools. We also have a youth group called Teens for LOVE (leadership, openmindedness, & vulnerability for everyone) that is ran by teens in schools to evaluate what changes they want to see, create action plans, and execute change. We also work with students to embed expressive arts as coping skills such as art, music, writing, spoken word, and movement.
As an adult, I think mindfulness is one important part toward creating school climate transformation that allows all children to feel safe, loved, and welcome at school. Research continues to support positive outcomes when we teach children how to include mindfulness in their habit making such as meditation, yoga, and other focused self-care opportunities.
With everything going on in the world right now, and depression, anxiety, bullying, suicide, and violence on the rise in young kids, it is so important to have mental health initiatives in schools. How do we help people get beyond the stigma of mental health?
This is such a good question, and unfortunately there is not a one-size fits all answer. That said, youth are powerful forces for change, which is exciting and gets me very hopeful. Please Pass the Love is very youth focused and intentionally empowers youth to have voice in assessing issues, creating action plans and implementing. Our youth work so hard to target specific issues and create sustainable action plans. Young people are amazing!
Aside from direct education on what mental health is and actively changing the narrative to normalize mental illness as a common medical condition, we need to also continue to have conversations that work to dismantle oppressive forces.
For instance, as adolescents are going through typical identity development, as adults we need to be supportive and work to build relationship. LGBTQ students are four times more likely to attempt suicide and 8.4 times more likely to attempt if they have highly rejecting families. Similarly, racial trauma can be perpetuated in schools operating with oppressive systemic policies that increase disciplinary referrals for students of color. As adults, we need to do our part to acknowledge the ways in which our systems and actions are also contributing to the mental health of our youth.
Does your curriculum include any Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness techniques? How do you suggest we scale up and get programs about mental health into every school in the country?
Our youth program, Teens for LOVE (Leadership, Openmindedness, & Vulnerability for Everyone) teaches young people how to engage with coping skills through expressive arts including art, music, writing, spoken word, and movement which includes yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. We strongly believe that many young people have not had opportunities to engage in artful techniques that may be extremely helpful in sustaining mental wellness and de-escalating in tough situations.I love your awesome questions. I think there are a ton of things that need to happen, but the short list is: policy change mandating school mental health systems that include preventative strategies such as mindfulness. In the meantime, we continue to do exactly what we are doing to reach as many different people, schools, and communities as we can. Our world is lucky to have young people like you, Adam, in it, that have the passion and drive to make our world a better place. I feel so much better every time I spend time with young people just like you!
If you had to pick one mental exercise for kids dealing with mental health issues to do in elementary school, middle school, and high school, to help positively shape their future behavior and health, what would it be?
I am never very good when anyone asks me to choose only one favorite thing. I am a huge advocate of teaching youth to have voice through arts-based expression, because they are awesome preventative exercises, but they are also wonderful ways to relieve stress, express and communicate feelings, and share our voice with others. In my ideal world, every school day would start with 30 seconds of breathing exercises followed by a few more minutes of yoga and/or meditating. Then curriculum would be infused with brain breaks and arts-based lessons to give students more practice on expression and voice. The return on investment for setting up this highly engaging, safe, and connected climate is huge.
What advice do you have for teachers, administrators, healthcare practitioners, kids, and especially parents as it relates to mindful learning?
I think one of the most forgotten, and important, parts of working with and living with persons (or self) having mental illness, is self-care. Often times we get so preoccupied, and overwhelmed, with being caregivers that we forget to take care of ourselves. One of the most beautiful parts of mindfulness is that is not just for a person struggling, it is for everyone. When we build strong habits of mindfulness as self-care then we reduce the likelihood of burning out, vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, which means we are healthier and able to still take care of our loved one and/or ourselves.
Thank you Ms. Jennifer Ulie-Wells for taking the time to speak with me. Everyone please check out the Please Pass the Love website and sign up for one of the conferences so you can learn a lot of great stuff to help our youth and pay it forward!
For more information about Wuf Shanti: https://wufshanti.com/2018/05/about-wuf-shanti/