Inside Prepare U, a curriculum created by local psychotherapist Ryan Beale, that’s helping high-school students cope with stress, anxiety and trauma.
Last year, the New York Times published a story called “The Crisis in Youth Suicide,” an article driven by a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that the suicide rate among 10- to 24-year-olds increased a dramatic 56 percent between 2007 and 2017.
That’s the same decade when Ryan Beale’s older brother, Steve, died by suicide. Steve — who was struggling with a family member’s death and turned to gambling and other risky behaviors — was 37 when he died in 2009, but his death nonetheless alerted Beale to the national discussion around young people and mental health. “The topic [of suicide] was still taboo,” says Beale, a 40-year-old Waterford resident. “People were saying I should get over my brother’s death, that I should move on.”
A 2017 conversation with Beale’s longtime mentor Patrick Watson, the then-principal of West Bloomfield High School, pushed him to take action to prevent more people — teenagers in particular — from suffering the same fate as his brother. During their chat, Watson shared that there had recently been multiple suicides at the school. For Beale, who attended WBHS in the 1990s, the fact that his alma mater had to bring in therapy dogs and other programs to help kids cope with stress and anxiety moved him to tears.
“All of those were great efforts, but they weren’t sticking,” says Beale, who had recently left the family business in commercial real estate and gotten his master’s degree in clinical psychology. “The kids were still extremely traumatized. From that meeting, I pivoted. That’s when the seeds of Prepare U began.”
Those seeds would soon come to fruition. In 2017 Beale launched Prepare U, a mental-health curriculum aimed at helping students from 8th to 12th grade cope with mental and emotional stressors in healthy ways. Developed by a team of clinical psychologists, psychotherapists, educators and crisis-intervention experts, the program is now in 41 schools in nine states.
Prepare U isn’t the only program centered around student mental health — the Detroit Public Schools Community District recently announced a partnership with the University of Michigan to bring emotional-health services to the district’s 110 schools — but it’s a pioneer in the space. “We’re the first-ever experiential mental-health curriculum in public schools,” says Beale, whose efforts have garnered impressive accolades. Prepare U has been endorsed by the president of the American Psychological Association’s Society for Media Psychology and Technology and featured in the U.S. Department of Education newsletter. “Kids are learning tools in an engaging way that’s increasing their emotional tolerance to stress and trauma.”
The program comprises 15 courses that walk students through lessons like learning to manage anger and stress, creating empathy and understanding the impact of risky decisions. Not surprisingly, there’s also a section that focuses on social media and the role technology plays in our lives. Students reflect on topics through journaling exercises and group discussions. “Every class follows the same curriculum,” says Beale, “but every class has its own unique experiences based on what’s occurring in the [students’] lives.”
Beale says that Prepare U has had a measurable impact on the more than 8,000 students that have taken the course as part of their health class. Follow-up studies done six to 18 months after completing the program show that about 20 percent of the students continued to utilize the tools they learned. That translates to improved feelings of social and emotional support as well as fewer symptoms of anxiety. “Across the board, we’re seeing significant decreases in anxiety and negative physical health symptoms, and significant increases in meaning and purpose,” says Beale.
WBHS student Cole Caspers, 16, took Prepare U two and half years ago when his school was attempting to recover from four student suicides in two years. “It still resonates with me today,” he says, adding that he’s able to talk about suicide like he would any other topic. “It’s given me the tools that I need to succeed and to help friends that are struggling.”
Mercy High School in Farmington Hills recently introduced Prepare U in its health classes, and students found it revelatory, says Brandi Lavely, department chair of health and physical education at the all-girls Catholic school.
She says students appreciated the chance to slow down and process their feelings via journaling and other self-care exercises. “Conversations [about mental health] are tough to have, so [Prepare U] gave them a safe space within our classes,” Lavely says. “Each group that went through the curriculum learned how to navigate the topics they wanted to talk about.”
Prepare U, which runs out of the Farmington office of Beale’s company, TherapyLive (a telehealth platform that connects therapists and clients), is the culmination of Beale’s work in the mental-health world. The father of three is also the founder and CEO of The Live Network, a venture dedicated to improving conversations around mental health on a personal level and global scale. In 2006 he created Chattertree.com, one of the first private family social networks.
Prepare U recently rolled out a edition for families to use at home; it’s designed to improve communication between parents, kids and siblings. “It’s a preventative approach,” says Beale. “You shouldn’t have to wait until there’s a crisis to learn how to interact with your family on a more meaningful level.”
Ultimately, Beale dreams of expanding Prepare U across the U.S. “There’s a lag in this country when it comes to education around mental health,” he says, “and we need a bridge” to connect families, schools and communities on this issue. He’s hoping Prepare U can be that foundation.
For more information visit prepareu.live.