By Cindy Mindell
It’s not often that a group of teens will get together with the express purpose to talk about mental health. But that’s exactly what will happen on Saturday, Jan. 28, when BBYO Connecticut Valley Region chapter hosts “Stomp It Out!” as part of its annual winter conference at the Hartford Hilton.
The idea for Stomp It Out!, a night to end the stigma of mental illness, was born out of tragedy a year ago, when a chapter member took his own life.
“Our teens asked us for more information about mental health and suicide, for themselves and their friends,” says Josh Cohen, BBYO’s area director of Community Impact and immediate past director of the BBYO Connecticut Valley Region chapter. “It started to transform the programming and conversations that we were having with BBYO teens.”
Cohen and his co-leaders designed a three-point approach to engaging the teens in discussions. At the region’s 2016 spring convention, the high-school senior members arrived a day early for a special workshop with the Jordan Porco Foundation, a Hartford-based organization dedicated to suicide awareness and prevention. Members continued the conversations at the chapter’s August leadership-training seminar.
Stomp It Out! is the third component, a dance in partnership with USY.
“The goal of the event is to have teens come out on a Saturday night, have fun, and have it be OK for them to talk about mental health,” says Cohen.
BBYO partnered with several Greater Hartford community organizations that deal with mental health to offer what Cohen calls “quick hits.”
“Come to our table, take some SWAG, say hi, we’ll stamp your card and at the end of the night, there will be a big drawing for some cool prizes,” he says. “We didn’t want this to be, ‘Come sit down and let us diagnose you’ or ‘It’s Saturday night; I’m going to go with my friends and we’re going to talk about suicide.’ For the vast majority of teens, this is 100 percent an entry point to start thinking and talking about mental health.”
Special activities at the Saturday night Stomp It Out! event will be provided by several partner organizations, including Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford, Jewish Family Services of Greater New Haven, the Jordan Porco Foundation, Here. Now., and Wheeler Clinic, among others, addressing the spectrum of mental health.
“BBYO is about giving teens the ability to become Jewish leaders and to change the world,” says Nohar Segal, BBYO CVR’s Regional N’siah (president of the girls’ division). “Mental-health issues are a big part of our society and through educating our peers, we hope to shed some light on some of these issues and to provide a better understanding of what many people deal with during their lives. Stomp It Out! gives us an opportunity to educate but also to provide resources should anyone need help now or down the road. We were very intentional about creating a bright and positive atmosphere to show our peers that it’s OK to have these conversations on a Saturday night. And we hope that our members can go back to their communities and provide information and continue to ask questions and not shy away from these issues.”
According to Janice Rothstein, director of Clinical Services at Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford (JFS), research shows that one in five teens has a mental illness or has had at least one depressive episode, a significant increase from just a few years ago.
“Certainly, teens face a lot of pressure: changes with puberty, questions about who they are and where they fit in,” said Rothstein.“There’s a lot of turmoil, uncertainty, and drama. Being a teenager is a fulltime job, with school and work and friendships, and managing social media, relationships, college applications, and identity. Online, every interaction, each fight or nasty comment is documented for hours or days after an incident, so pressure from social media is also huge.”
The anxiety of school and competitiveness affects kids younger and younger, Rothstein says.
“‘Am I smart enough, am I pretty enough, am I buffed enough, do I have big enough muscles?’ Things such as family expectations and unrealistic academic and social goals can create an array of feelings like rejection and disappointment, and these are some of the things that kids are struggling with,” she says. “Online bullying and technology impact kids as early as fifth grade and maybe earlier. Kids are cruel over SnapChat and Instagram, to the point where teens don’t want to come to school.”
“As we think of adolescent development, feeling unhappy and sad in response to disappointment or loss is normal,” she says. “But there’s a huge difference between sadness and depression. It isn’t always easy for us as parents to figure out what’s what because depression and normal teenage growing pains kind of go together. But when is it really a problem? When is sadness more than sadness?”
To help determine the difference between normal sadness and major depression in adolescents, mental health specialists look for specific behaviors and changes in regular behavior.
There is cause for concern if the unusual behavior lasts for weeks or months and there is a decrease in some or all of the following: academics, sleep, appetite, energy, memory, or concentration. Other red flags include prolonged stomachaches or headaches, feeling of hopelessness, crying, and sadness. Adolescents may also become more aggressive and/or isolated, and treat their personal appearance differently, not caring about dirty hair or slapdash outfits. Other warning signs may include an obsession with death, with a teen producing poems or drawings about death, or giving away his or her possessions. A teen may be experiencing a lot of shame and say things like, “If I were dead, you’d be better off if I weren’t here.”
These are warning signs that parents must take seriously.
“It’s not just one thing or one sign that suggests there’s a problem; it’s a variety of things and the fact that it lasts,” Rothstein says. “When we think about normal disappointments – for example, when somebody has a break-up – it’s normal and usual to be sad and crying. But after a period of time – maybe a couple of weeks – it subsides and you’re able to function again. In something like a major depression, it doesn’t go away. The things that somebody used to love doing or being with their friends or playing sports, they’re not doing anymore. So it’s important that parents really know their kids and begin to note, ‘This is not the way my kid used to act,’ not just over the course of a few days, but when it’s something that is pretty intense and persistent.”
While addiction is often seen in teens with mental health problems, one does not directly cause the other, Rothstein says, but rather, alcohol and drugs may be used to self-medicate symptoms of anxiety or depression.
In the 2011 study, The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families, the American Academy of Pediatrics cited “Facebook depression” as a risk factor for teens who are overexposed to social media. The condition results from establishing a presence on social-networking sites and feeling unaccepted by peers, causing depression, anxiety, and withdrawal, and often perpetuating risky activities such as substance use and self-destructive behaviors.
Rothstein suggests software like TeenSafe, which allows parents to monitor social-media accounts and find out when and if a child is being cyber-bullied. In addition, parents should talk to their kids about online threats and healthy social networking.
There are other factors that can contribute to depression: lower levels of neuro-transmitting chemicals that carry signals to the nervous system and the brain; genetics; thyroid disorders; significant life events such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a move to a new town.
For that reason, mental health providers like JFS clinicians and physicians will assess a patient via both a detailed psychiatric assessment and blood work.
In order to be aware of the pressures teens might be facing, parents must be more engaged, beyond the business of day-to-day life.
“Many conversations between parents and kids are about grades, schedules — ‘when is practice over?’ ‘when am I going to pick you up?’ – and we need to pay more attention to emotions, because we also want to give kids key life lessons that will help them grow and separate,” Rothstein says. “If parents are worried, they need to say so – not in a negative way but, for example, ‘It seems like you’re having trouble. How can I help? Tell me what’s going on.’ It’s important that parents get help promptly. When you know there’s a problem or when you even think there’s a problem, we really encourage parents to take the next step and go talk to a professional and have their child assessed.”
Working with the entire family of a teen with mental health issues, JFS offers a range of evidence-based treatments, including psychotherapy (or talking therapy) to help a teen understand why he or she is depressed and to learn coping skills; cognitive behavioral therapy, to help teens change negative patterns of thinking and behaving.
JFS also provides a combination of medication management and psychotherapy, based on an assessment to determine if medication is necessary. Intensive dialectical behavioral therapy helps stabilize thoughts and feelings. TF-CBT (Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is designed to help kids overcome the emotional effects of trauma like a death, divorce, or witnessing an accident or domestic violence.
“We want to be proactive and begin to end the stigma and be able to promote acceptance,” says Rothstein. “We want kids to be able to talk about their issues because stigma produces isolation and it’s one of the most challenging aspects of living with mental illness. It can cause people to feel ashamed about the stigma, something that is out of their control and often may prevent someone from seeking help.”
JFS leadership was quick to sign on to Stomp It Out, the BBYO event.
“JFS is very committed to partnering with other community organizations like BBYO to create awareness about mental health issues affecting teens and their families,” says executive director Anne Danaher. “In collaboration with community partners, we can best mobilize resources for teens.”
At Stomp It Out!, JFS will run a selfie station with an interactive activity on emotions, using the emojis that teens use in social media.
“Being able to express one’s feelings is important, and how one expresses his or her feelings varies from individual to individual,” says Kimberly Margolis, JFS director of Development. “We’ll have emoji masks of different familiar facial expressions that teens use multiple times daily on their social media.
“We chose emojis because it’s one of the most effective forms of emotional communication for teens today. We’re going to have them think about what’s behind the emojis in social media. Is it more than just a silly face or are there any red flags that teens can identify to help their friends and peers? How do teens use these emojis in social media? How do they express themselves to their friends and their peers? It’s a non-threatening way to do an emotional check-in,” she says.
As the parent of a teenager who will attend the convention, Margolis says that she is impressed by BBYO’s willingness to take on the issue of mental health.
“When I was a teenager, this would not have been the theme of any youth group program, and it is not traditional to have a Saturday evening program with a focus on mental health,” she says. “I really applaud BBYO’s efforts to help stop the stigma and create an opportunity for teens to talk about it in a safe environment, and help our efforts to stop it as early as possible.”
“Mental health issues are something a majority of people will deal with at some point in their lives, and the teens involved in this program are no exception,” says David Cohen, Regional Godol (president of the boys’ division). “Our goal is to help them recognize this in both themselves and others, and learn healthy ways to be open about these issues and ultimately resolve them. We hope that, by understanding the stigma that society has created around mental health issues, teens will be prepared to help tear this stigma down, and feel comfortable approaching their friends and others over any issue they feel needs to be addressed.”
Stomp It Out! is co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Western Connecticut, the Jewish Foundation of Greater Hartford, the Jewish Foundation of Greater New Haven, and the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.
WHERE TO GET HELP
Community mental-health resources
(Phone number) 2-1-1 is a free, confidential, 24-hour service across the country that includes a mobile mental-health crisis intervention unit.
National Suicide Prevention Line is available 24 hours a day: (800) 273-8255
Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, in Hartford: (860) 545-9000