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Better mental health through hip-hop

DJ Duran Cobb, left, teaches students at West Denver Prep's Harvey Park campus.

DJ Duran Cobb, left, teaches students at West Denver Prep’s Harvey Park campus.

Courtesy of Aspire

DENVER – The seventh-grader sat down at the laptop and with a few tentative keystrokes began the process of moving from one song track to another, jerkily at first, but gradually gaining the skill to move seamlessly and proficiently, cross-fading just like a real disc jockey.

“Awesome! You’re mixing Lady Gaga!” roared Duran Cobb, who owns the laptop, the sound card and the electronic sound mixing equipment.

Cobb really is a DJ but one of his day jobs is working as an instructor for Check Your Head, a curriculum put together by Mental Health America of Colorado.

The six-week program uses the arts as a tool to get youngsters to reflect on mental health, to develop positive outlets for adolescent angst and to provide them with conflict resolution and social skills that will come in useful during their journey to adulthood.

Dance, poetry, music provide healthy outlets

Before the school year is out, the boy and his classmates at West Denver Prep’s Harvey Park campus in Southwest Denver will have explored not just deejaying but also hip-hop, dance, poetry and other artistic forms of self-expression.

All that, while concurrently exploring the myths and realities of mental illness, identifying positive role models, coming up with coping strategies in times of stress and making new friends they might never meet otherwise.

“The curriculum is based on factors that have really been demonstrated to help protect students from things like suicide, bullying, substance abuse, that kind of thing,” said Richard Evaleigh, vice president of programs for MHAC. “By building on those protective factors, we’re helping students to protect themselves from negative influences.

Launched six years ago, Check Your Head initially was offered as an after-school program at several Denver high schools. But its ability to attract students was limited because it had to compete with so many other after-school activities.

Program offered during the school day

Last year, the program moved into some charter schools, where it became an enrichment course offered during the school day.

Thanks to a grant from the state’s Tony Grampsas Youth Services fund, it currently is offered at Venture Prep School and it’s mandatory for every seventh-grader at West Denver Prep’s Harvey Park campus. Next year, it will be offered at all four West Denver Prep campuses.

So far, 211 students from traditional and charter schools have completed the program, with another 40 due to finish by the end of the school year.

One of those graduates is Julia Kirklen, now a sophomore psychology major at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga. She signed up for Check Your Head when she was a sophomore at East High School, mostly because she was bored and looking for something to do after school. She got more than she bargained for.

“For me, it was an eye-opening experience,” said Kirklen, now 20. “I learned so much about myself, and I got to where I wasn’t afraid to go out and try something new in front of people. We choreographed some dances. It was really fun, but it really boosted my confidence.”

Kirklen said the program profoundly impacted her and her classmates.

“I know people who are, like, really shy but with the hip-hop program, that just brought out another element in them,” she said. “And the classroom was a safe space to speak out, to ask questions. You got to know the other people in the class. And then, when they brought in the hip-hop, people really came out of their shell. You could see the whole person change.”

It also brought her new friends.

“I met a lot of people I didn’t even know went to my school,” she said. “There was this one kid, Tyler, he was a junior. He did break dancing and he also did poetry. I never knew that before. I found out so much about him – things I didn’t bother to know before because I was just some kid walking down the hall with my headphones on.”

Breaking down social stratification at school

Instructor Matt McDonald said he’s seen that happen again and again.

“By introducing them to new art forms, it breaks down the social stratification of school,” he said. “Sports can do that, but sports is so competitive it can also increase the distance between students. Art is non-competitive.”

McDonald tag-teams with Cobb to teach the daily hour-long class at West Denver Prep. Some days, he’ll spend the first half hour walking students through some psychological self-help exercises, then Cobb takes the remaining time focusing on music.

Other days, Cobb will lead the classroom discussion and McDonald will follow with instruction in various dance techniques.

But the objective is always the same: introduce a stimulating topic, whether in the form of a film or a newspaper article or a classroom discussion. Then reinforce whatever they’ve learned through some type of creative expression.

“The first week really introduces the idea that physical health is connected to mental health,” said Tim Webb, education and training coordinator for MHAC. “And how some things you internalize can be expressed through dance. It carries the mental health discussion into the art.”

Break dance as conflict resolution skill

“There’s a week spent on conflict,” Webb said. “So they learn that break dancing was created as means to oppose conflict among gangs. They learn the history of the art form as the week goes on.”

Learn more

At one West Denver Prep class, McDonald asked students to draw up a list of the people who make up their “support team” – those individuals who truly have their bests interests at heart and who can help them grow to their full potential.

“I had to really work through this,” he admitted to the students. “When I was younger, some of my friends had my best interests at heart but others really didn’t. I made some mistakes. But wise people can learn from other people’s mistakes.”

After class, he’s hopeful that the youngsters in the class are learning things they may not even realize they’re absorbing.

“A lot of mental health lessons are hard to understand without a real-life application,” he said. “These kids don’t sit around analyzing their mental health. So we try to take it out of the classroom and integrate into real-life settings.”

Cobb added: “Any art you can pick up on early in life will always serve as an outlet for you. If you find a passion, then that’s going to be a form of release for you.

“And besides,” he said, “everyone likes being able to deejay. We’ve got some shy kids who will end up being able to show off, to mix in circles they wouldn’t have otherwise. I see a lot of that.”