Connecting Our Youth to Empathy and Resilience:
Our Response to the Growing Youth Mental Health Crisis
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Why is the Volunteer Center addressing Youth Mental Wellness?
In 2016 the Board of Directors, together with a new CEO, took on a three-year strategic planning process to establish an updated vision for the Volunteer Center's future. The plan included an evaluation of our current programs created to keep the organization at the heart of responding to the community's needs, including Operation Teddy Bear (addressing educational inequity) and Food For Kids (addressing food insecurity).
More importantly, the assessment sought to identify the critical needs currently facing our community. After extensive research, which included combing through data and speaking with members of the community, the top concern became quite clear: the mental health crisis facing our youth. More specifically, representatives from our community believe that this crisis is the result of the inescapable pressure to be perfect at all costs, and constant isolation and disconnection from vices like screens. Click here to learn more about how we engaged the community in this process.
Story after story revealed that many of our youth are showing a lack of empathy, resilience, balance, self-confidence and other characteristics necessary for emotional wellness.
What is the problem?
Research shows that the generation born after 1995, known as Gen Z, or iGen, faces an unparalleled mental health crisis. Research and community opinion show that this crisis may be linked to several factors including isolation, unattainable expectations for perfection, and a near-constant connection with screens. Youth report feeling isolated and alone despite a constant virtual connection. A majority of youth we spoke with admitted that they are not getting the critical sleep their young, developing brains desperately need. Local students have reported sleeping as little as 2-4 hours a night.
Youth in our focus groups said they are too busy with the pressures of school, extracurricular activities, the race to get into good colleges, and parents’ expectations to focus on the “luxury” of self-care. Many are not equipped with healthy coping tools, nor able to identify or express their emotions. These deficits lead to the inability to connect authentically with their peers, which can lead to serious mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and more extreme cases of self-harm and loss of the will to live.
Chronic busy-ness and disconnection are eliminating important qualities of family and community life that give children and teens a sense of safety, belonging, and self-assurance and help protect them from isolation and despair. The statistics on youth mental health, depression, self-harm, and suicide have all increased at alarming rates over the last decade. While formal mental health therapy can be very helpful for many, students in our focus groups reported that barriers including cost, insurance, parent permission, time, and stigma keep many students from the option of accessing this tool. Nonprofits and community organizations must help fill these gaps with innovative, accessible prevention and education programs that teach students coping skills and build empathy and resilience.
How Are We Helping?
Evidence-based community prevention programs that help students connect with peers in an informal non-profit or youth program setting are not easily accessible locally. Teens asked for a “safe, neutral” space in which they could learn to better balance their lives, and learn to identify and express emotions in healthy ways. They loved the idea of a program that would teach them resiliency skills, and help them be kinder and gentler with both themselves and others.
In response, the Volunteer Center has worked closely with families and mental health professionals to reimagine its popular teen program, now renamed Connect.
Connect is designed to be an accessible program framework to bring helpful coping tools and proven techniques to teens in their own, non-medical environment. The program will help teens with:
- Strength and value identification
- Group sharing and belonging
- Emotional intelligence
- Coping skills
Connect also addresses the concern that students, parents and community leaders share around the excessive use of disconnection vices such as screen time and its impact on emotions, sleep and feelings of isolation. While designed ultimately to be a prevention and early intervention program, the Volunteer Center has hired a certified mental health professional (LPCC) to create specific lesson plans and presents six Connect calls, (five for teens and one for parent/caregivers) during the pilot.
PHASE 1: FEBRUARY - APRIL 2018 (COMPLETE)
We conducted more than 50 interviews and informal discussions with a variety of community members, including mental health experts, representatives from the major area hospitals, educators, law enforcement, nonprofit leaders, faith-based community representatives, parents, affected youth and private philanthropists.
We also attended events featuring panels of experts and the youth themselves; conducted extensive research of nationwide information; and developed an extensive database of proven studies, existing programs, program ideas, articles, anecdotes and incidents mentioned in the news. Finally, we compiled county, state and national data from the most well-respected universities, agencies and experts in the field of mental health.
OUR GOAL: To fully identify the problem - including a needs assessment with supporting statistics, affected populations and stakeholders - and develop the preliminary draft of what our community believes to be the major contributing factors.
PHASE 2: MAY - SEPTEMBER 2018 (COMPLETE)
We engaged the community during a series of four Community Input Meetings with mental health practitioners, parents and caregivers, the faith community, and the youth themselves. We asked them to help us:
OUR GOAL: To identify the top factors that community members feel are contributing to this crisis and identify the solutions they need most, led by the guiding values of empathy, inclusion and vulnerability.
We worked with community members, organizations and agencies to identify and research programs and services that are effective, measurable and could meet the needs of our community.
We spent time exploring and developing a new, all-encompassing focus designed to compassionately support community members, so we can look up, re-connect, empathize with each other, build resilience, express emotions and practice self-care. We called it Engaging Hearts and Minds.
We also developed a Program Framework and Expected Outcomes for a new teen program: Connect and developed and piloted community education presentations to help raise awareness for families about the youth mental health crisis.
OUR GOAL: To develop unique services requested by the community.
PHASE 4: IMPLEMENTATION MARCH 2020 - JUNE 2021
After having to cancel our original version of our reminagined teen program "Connecting IRL (In Real Life)," due to the COVID closures, we pivoted over the summer and created a new online-based program now called Connect. This reinvention of our popular Teen Program to increase empathy and resilience in local teens - will create a supportive space for teens to both share and listen to one another, we will help them realize they are not alone in their emotions, provide them with healthy coping skills, and inspire them to help others. Click here to learn more about our new teen program, Connect. and how to apply!
Currently, we have had to push our other two strategies below into 2021 as we work to keep our business operational due to the economic impacts of COVID.
Your support will help us:
- Instill more empathy, resilience and emotional wellness in our community’s youth through an updated youth program.
- Educate, equip and encourage families to gradually reduce excessive screen time in favor of more connected and compassionate activities.
- Spread community-wide awareness of the issue and help initiate gradual changes in behavior to reach as many families as possible.
Click here to help make an impact with a financial contribution, so together, we can create the services our local families have said they so desperately need.
Click for: Helpful Resources | Having Conversations About Mental Health
Talking to You Kids About Mental Health | Dear Evan Hansen and Talking About Mental Health
Community-wide Education and Awareness | Youth Suicide Prevention Task Force