Elizabeth Tate High School finds another resource for struggling students through the Writing and Wellness Club

On Wednesday, March 4, the Iowa Youth Writing Project held another installment of their Writing and Wellness Club. This series of lectures is available to students to participate in writing exercises that help them speak about their mental health, which has had the participation of health representatives and educators.


Emily Wangen

Iowa Youth Writing Project Associate Director Emily Spencer poses for a portrait on Wednesday, March 4, 2020, in her office located inside Phillips Hall.

Pedro Barragan, Arts Reporter

On Wednesday March 4, the Iowa Youth Writing Project hosted their monthly Writing and Wellness Club event at Tate High School. A program started by IYWP associate director Emily Spencer in November of 2019, the club aims to empower, inspire, and engage youth through creative writing. Spencer hopes the organization can give teenagers a platform to speak about their mental health.

Being a teacher for Boston Public Schools motivated Emily Spencer to start the Writing and Wellness Club, seeing as to how students were eager to speak about their mental health in their creative writing but were unable to discuss in a regular class time block. Another reason Spencer created the club was to acknowledge a recent CDC study that showed a 56 percent increase in suicides among 10-24 year olds

“I noticed that students wanted to speak about their wellness and their mental health,” Spencer said. “This was coming out sometimes in their creative writing, but many times during class discussions we would start to talk about mental health after talking about character conflicts or writing non-fiction pieces.”

One of the lecturers for the recent March 4 event was IYWP intern Emily Abell, a UI student majoring in social justice. Abell has been involved with the CommUnity Services and Food Bank and has set out to spread attention to the issue of mental health.

“The goal for the program is to create a direct and open dialogue between high school students and professionals, so they can build personal and professional skills,” Abell said. 

Tate High School physical education teacher Kevin Koffron and health teacher Rhonda Halverson combine their classes once a month to participate in the program. Koffron has heavily involved himself in the program, and also participates by writing a rap/poem to engage students.

“It’s been really beneficial. We started the beginning of the year talking about new year resolutions and our intentions behind those resolutions,” Koffron said. “I think it was important for the kids not to only say it aloud, but to write it down and make those things purposeful and come to life.”

First year UI surgery resident Mohammed “Femi” Suraju, MD,  has also been involved with the Writing and Wellness Club as a guest speaker while also being the co-founder “Discover Medicine, Writing & Wellness”  a program he co-founded with Spencer in collaboration with IYWP and the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics. Suraju believes that writing about wellness is beneficial to anyone hoping to enter the medical field in the 21st century.

“My role so far has been to consult in high schools and talk to them about wellness and figure out strategies to tackle wellness,” Suraju said. “It’s important that these students start learning about what’s available to them and know that not every strategy will work for them.”

After finding a study linking literary genius with that of mental disturbance, Spencer believes that offering creative tools may be the source for coping with mental illness. Spencer has also been engaged in bringing literary and mental health resources to the Iowa City community. She will be hosting a 3-day workshop for Iowa City Poetry on April 12. 

“With creative writing, sometimes I wonder if there’s anything else,” Spencer said. “Sometimes writing can seem like a solitary pursuit. But when I went to the workshop I noticed that there’s a lot of talent but there are a lot of needs.”