How to Use Letters to Boost Mental Health

How to Use Letters to Boost Mental Health

03.02.21
03.02.21

When was the last time you got a letter that wasn’t a bill or a birthday card from your auntie? It feels like with all the new ways there are to get in touch with people, sending a physical note has become a lost art. Diana Chao, who is featured in the YR Media story, Youth-Led Organization Tackles Mental Illness Through Letters, shows that snail mail still holds a special place in our hearts and can be a thoughtful way to offer much-needed support to someone struggling through hard times.  

During the pandemic (and probably after too), it can be hard to maintain positive mental health and the mindfulness needed to get through hard moments, especially when you are separated from friends and support systems. In this lesson plan, we’ll borrow from Diana’s letter-writing practice to guide students through a process of writing mental health boosting letters to themselves. 

Icebreaker: 

Question 1: What is the best letter you have ever received? (If students have never received a letter, you can guide them to think about the best text message or voicemail they have ever received).

Questions 2:  What is your go-to self-care practice? 

Open up the class with this icebreaker question. Give students a few minutes to reflect on their answer by themselves. After a minute or two students can answer by unmuting themselves and speaking or putting their answer into the chat.  Pick one student and then tell students that as soon as they answer they can pick the student to answer next.

NOTE: Distance learning affords students some of the perks that classroom learning does not, so you may want to leverage different ways students can participate in classes so that you’re making sure to hear from all of your students, whether they’ve got cameras on or off. Make it easy for students to contribute to class discussions by exploring some of the additional features on your video conferencing platform. The chat in particular has been a game changer for more introverted students.

Activity 1: Read and discuss the YR Media story about Diana Chao

Give students four minutes to read the YR Media story, Youth-Led Organization Tackles Mental Illness Through Letters.

Depending on the size of your group, you can discuss as a class or split into breakout rooms. If you have the capabilities, we recommend putting your students into groups of 3-4 and putting the questions below in the chat so they are available for reference while students are in breakout rooms. When students come back to the whole group, tell them to put words or phrases from the story that resonated with them in the chat. You can invite them to elaborate on the words and phrases they selected.

NOTE: Have an answer of your own prepared for discussion questions, especially questions that require vulnerability from your students. Not only does it help to get conversations going, but students will also feel more comfortable knowing that sharing is a two-way street.

Discuss:

  • What circumstances contribute to mental health stigma?
  • Is there a mental health stigma within your racial/ethnic identities? What have you heard? Why do you think that stigma exists?
  • Put yourself in the shoes of someone who is working through a difficult time and receives one of Diana’s letters. What might they feel?
  • What do you think makes letter writing a healing activity? 
  • Can you think of another situation where letter writing was used to bring about change?
  • Why do you think people still write letters today?

Activity 2: Writing mood letters to support personal mental health

Part 1: Class brainstorm and discussion

As a class, discuss some of the challenging moods that have come up for you during the pandemic. Let students know that they don’t have to be super specific, but if they feel comfortable they can elaborate on what usually causes the mood. An example might be, “I feel frustrated trying to navigate the space in my house with my siblings and relatives. Sometimes I have a presentation for class and don’t know where to do it.” Other moods may include angry, upset, overwhelmed, fatigued. Keep track of the moods students bring up in the chat or on a document as you share your screen. 

Invite students to discuss what usually makes you feel better when you experience these moods. Record student responses in the chat or in another section on a document as you screen-share. An example might be, “I usually feel better after making a cup of tea and taking a few breaths.” 

Part 2: Personal brainstorm

Invite students to select three of the moods that they feel come up most frequently for them.  Give them time to answer the following questions for each mood: What usually triggers this mood? What usually makes me feel better? 

Part 3: Writing letters

For each mood, students will write a letter to themselves. The purpose of the letter is to de-escalate the challenging mood, offer solace, and remind themselves of activities that promote mindfulness and grounding. Students will label and store these letters to open when they are experiencing their tough mood in the future. 

They can take time to research mantras or meditations to include in their letters to themselves. Dr. Kristin Neff’s site is just one place students can find helpful self compassion meditations and exercises, but encourage them to look around for resources that fit their needs. They may want to use their letters to urge themselves to seek help from trusted adults, go on a restorative walk or get in contact with a friend. Letters can also be a repository of happy memories or reminders of how they have overcome other adversities. 

Encourage students to make their letters as specific as possible, so that they can be responsive to the letters’ content when it comes time to open it. 

Part 4: Label, seal and store letters

When students finish their letters, they will seal them in individual envelopes labeled with the mood the letter is meant to address. Students can decorate the outside of their envelopes if they want. Instruct students to store letters in a place they can always access. For example, they may want to tuck their letters into a journal or place their letters in a drawer.

OPTIONAL: Students may decide to fill their envelopes with other helpful materials before sealing their letters such as photos, notes from friends or other mementos that may help bring about a better mood or facilitate a sense of mindfulness. 

Debrief as a class: 

  • How will you remind yourself to open the letter when you’re not feeling so great? 
  • Do you think you’ll do this activity outside of class again?
  • What do you anticipate will be helpful about opening a letter from yourself when you’re not feeling very well? 
  • How can you use some of what you learned today to support and communicate with your family and friends?

This learning resource was produced by Nimah Gobir. Thanks to Clifford Lee, Kathleen Arada and Stephanie Stiede for expert feedback.