New Initiatives Tackle Mental Health in Children and Teens

As depression, anxiety and suicide continue to rise among today’s adolescents, Associated agencies are providing new approaches to address these growing mental health issues.

At the top of the list – a new mindfulness initiative in area schools – that combines yoga, breathing techniques, journaling and more – to build resiliency in order to help individuals persevere when faced with challenges.

The program is in response to the growth in mental health issues. According to a study published in the 2019 Journal of Abnormal Psychology, U.S. teens and young adults were more distressed, more likely to suffer from major depression and more prone to suicide than their millennial counterparts were at the same age. About 20% of American teens live with a mental health condition, reports the National Institute of Mental Health.

“Mental health is at the root of so many of today’s issues from substance abuse to suicide,” explains Joan Grayson Cohen, executive director of Jewish Community Services. “We need to provide school-based programs that address mental health concerns similarly to the way we offer gym programs that address our physical health.”

Based on this need, JCS recently introduced beeWell for preschoolers and early elementary classrooms and Be Well for middle and high school students.

Recently, Brittni Barcase, JCS health educator brought Be Well to Roland Park Country School (RPCS) during the school’s alternative learning week for middle schoolers. Throughout the five days, she incorporated restorative yoga, meditation and journaling to encourage students to express their feelings.

“We are helping students recognize stressful emotions and then teaching them mindfulness exercises that provide positive management skills to reduce anxiety and stress. We are asking them to share with their classmates the times when they were resilient to help them bond with each other and to know they have someone to trust … to know that they are not alone,” Barcase says.

In addition to RPCS, JCS brought a shorter version to Bryn Mawr and Garrison Forest Middle Schools.

“We need to provide school-based programs that address mental health concerns similarly to the way we offer gym programs that address our physical health.”

For younger students, the beeWell program draws lessons from books like Breathe Like a Bear which offers short breathing practices and movements that kids can do anytime– in the car, at home or event at their school desk’s. At the conclusion, JCS provides educators with a teacher’s guide which can be used as a follow-up and a guide. Parents also receive information so they can continue practicing these techniques with their children.

Deena Rubinstein teaches four-year-olds at the Stoler Early Learning Center at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC. In addition to bringing in JCS’ beeWell program, their teachers have been incorporating these mindfulness strategies, as well as other self-help skills, in order to teach the children to be present and increase their ability to regulate their emotions. 

“When kids learn how to control their emotions, they can think through problems,” she says.

Rubinstein has taught her preschoolers breathing techniques to reduce frustration and anxiety, counting to 10, hugging something soft and doing heavy work to provide them with deep pressure input.

Since incorporating these manipulatives and lessons, Rubinstein noticed that the preschoolers have increased their ability to handle new or challenging situations and are more aware of their thoughts and feelings.  The children understand that it is okay to have big emotions, and how we respond to them is what is important. BeeWell helped to reinforce these skills and increase the children’s awareness of their responses to challenging situations.

At the same time, 4Front, a teen-focused initiative directed by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore and supported by The Associated, Jim Joseph Foundation, the Meyerhoff Charitable Funds and other local funding partners have created 4FrontU, short-term learning experiences for teens and parents.

On March 17, they are partnering with Beth Israel and the Holistic Life Foundation for a workshop on meditation and mindfulness, one of many 4FrontU offerings..

“The Holistic Life Foundation is currently doing this work in Baltimore City schools and they are sharing what is successful with our teens. We have noticed a need to help teens prioritize wellness and we want to provide spaces for teens to connect and seek balance,” Rabbi Dena Shaffer, 4Front executive director.

Training the Educators

4Front and Jewish Community Services also are collaborating to provide the nationally-recognized Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) program in Baltimore. Just like certified medical first aid or CPR, people trained in YMHFA are equipped to help youth experiencing a mental health crisis until professional help can be arranged.  

Designed for teachers, coaches, caregivers, school staff, and family members, the eight-hour course defines mental health challenges for youth, reviews adolescent development and teaches a five-step action plan to intervene and help young people in crisis and non-crisis situations. Topics include anxiety, depression, substance use, disruptive behaviors, eating disorders and disorders in which psychosis may occur. In addition, with funding from The Jim Joseph Foundation. the YMHFA model expanded content to reflect cultural and religious elements within the Jewish community and infuse learning about mental health with Jewish values. 

The program is available to schools, camps and other organizations.

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