Chase Porter, a senior at Bend Tech Academy at Marshall High School, admitted to his teacher recently that he missed class the previous day because he didn’t get enough sleep.

Instead of admonishing Porter, his teacher said she was happy that he was able to recharge. A few minutes later, she used his rest day as a positive example of self-care to her class of 12 students.

“If I were him, I’d say one of my healthy activities that I used yesterday was taking the day off and just resting,” said his teacher, Heather Johnson. “That’s a healthy activity, that’s awesome.”

Self-care is a major theme of Johnson’s new mental health course at the Bend Tech Academy magnet high school. The class teaches students about the things many people, including teens, struggle with, from stress to depression to addiction. It then helps them build resilience through taking care of themselves and finding help from outside sources.

“I think the whole goal of this class is to teach them that they are capable of relying on themselves for answers and solutions,” Johnson said. “If they feel like they get really stuck ... they can create a team of people, behaviors and actions that can get them out of harm’s way.”

Johnson’s course is called EMBRACE — an acronym that stands for Encouraging Mindful Behavior to Relay Acceptance, Change and Empathy. She started the program two years ago when she was a health teacher at Sisters High School, and brought it with her when she moved to Bend Tech Academy in September.

Johnson was inspired to create her new class after she noticed students in her Sisters High School health class were particularly interested in topics that included depression, healthy and unhealthy relationships, addiction and suicide.

“What I had found is that when students took my health classes, they always wanted to do a deeper dive into mental health,” Johnson said. “They were looking for solutions: How can I help my friends (and) myself.”

The current class arrives in Bend as more local teens are struggling with mental health. Only 65.6% of Deschutes County 11th graders rated their emotional and mental health as excellent, very good or good, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the Oregon Health Authority. Just four years earlier, more than 80% of the county’s students gave positive marks to their own mental health in the same state survey.

More than 33% of Deschutes County 11th graders also said they felt sad or hopeless nearly every day for two or more weeks in a row in 2019, the survey stated. More than 15% of the county’s 11th graders and nearly 19% of its eighth graders said they “seriously considered” killing themselves, according to the survey.

Elizabeth Renteria Holden, an employee of Deschutes County Behavioral Health who manages mental health and addiction programs for kids, teens and young adults, said awareness and frank discussion of these topics is needed.

She was happy to hear that a local high school course was entirely focusing on mental health and providing solutions.

“Struggling with depression and anxiety, those are common human experiences, and having the tools to manage them … is really critical,” Renteria Holden said. “I’m encouraged that people want to have this dialogue — not just what’s wrong, but how we move towards wellness.”

Johnson’s mental health course has a particular focus on students learning how to self-evaluate their emotions and help themselves out of negative situations, the health teacher said. Students learn about different sources of strength, from healthy activities to family support to spirituality, and then identify which of those can guide them through a crisis.

Students spend more time discussing solutions and tools for coping with mental health struggles rather than just symptoms in Johnson’s class. That’s intentional, as students who feel stressed or have depression likely already are aware of the correlating feelings, Johnson said.

“We’re trying to not indulge in the symptoms of it, because it’s almost stroking the ego,” she said. “I have a 90-10 rule in my classroom: if you’re going to share openly, 90% of what you’re going to say is positive and solution-oriented.”

On a recent Friday, Johnson had a discussion with her students about self-care. She encouraged students to not bury their negative emotions, but rather to accept them without shame and investigate why they might feel that way.

“It’s OK to not be OK,” Johnson told her students. “Treat yourself with the same compassion you give to another.”

Raimee Osborn, a junior in Johnson’s class, said the mental health course has been beneficial.

“I have a lot of social anxiety, so I’m bad with people,” Raimee, 16, said. “(The class) is helping me come out of my shell more.”

Porter, the 18-year-old senior who had trouble sleeping , said he found the mental health course interesting. Johnson’s discussion of suicide prevention really stuck with him, he said.

“I had a friend a couple years ago that committed suicide, and that was terrible,” Porter said. “From now on, I know to ask them if they are feeling suicidal, instead of not addressing it and letting them bathe in their emotions.”

Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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