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JHF Awards $398,000 in Teen Mental Health Grants to Local Organizations

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many teens and families in the community are experiencing a toxic mix of fear, stress, disappointment, isolation, and confusion. Some may be directly affected by COVID-19, reckoning with illness among their family and friends. Many adolescents are now attending school on a lopsided schedule, with some days at home interrupted by technological issues. They may even be asked to help care for younger siblings. Their extracurricular activities have been severely limited or cancelled indefinitely, altering or removing social circles of support. Loss of safety and security through economic instability, access to resources, or increased risk of domestic violence and abuse is an even greater concern.

In addition to threatening physical health, these issues present an increased risk for young people's mental health. Even before the pandemic hit, one in ten adolescents experienced anxiety or depression. This translates to over three million young people in the United States alone, who are now burdened with additional stressors that must be addressed. Schools cannot be expected to manage an increased need for mental health services, as students may experience barriers to accessing services through schools. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the need to immediately draw on community resources and empower teens to support their mental wellness.

Recognizing these risks and concerns, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) awarded $398,000 in grants to 14 organizations to support teen mental health programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. These grants will support community-oriented organizations that already serve teens and will continue to provide emotional support, interactive experiences, and connection during this difficult and uncertain time. The organizations will also form a new teen mental health agency network, convened by JHF, to share information and expertise and forge new collaborations from a grassroots perspective.

The funded programs will help further connect the organizations with teens amid changing circumstances of COVID-19 and engage with youth who may feel isolated and removed from their communities. This support is crucial for teens, says Judith Cohen, Medical Director of the AGH Center for Traumatic Stress in Children & Adolescents.

"Adolescence is typically a time when teens start to develop a stronger sense of their own unique identity. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted activities that contribute to these processes, requiring teens to remain at home with parents and younger siblings instead of attending in-person school, spending time with peers, or participating in extracurricular activities. Teens may experience a variety of negative mental health problems in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including increased risk for depressive, anxiety, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Despite this, most teens are resilient, and coping skills can help them to maintain health and wellness throughout this challenging time."

The youth-driven programs will provide supportive environments in which teens can build resiliency, leadership skills, autonomy, and relationships. The CHILL Project, a mindfulness program piloted at Baldwin High School by Allegheny Health Network, will expand its programming to include expressive arts as a medium of communication during the pandemic and beyond. Curriculum enhancements will include puppetry, painting, sculpting, dance, and poetry. The project aims to reach all students and ensure the inclusion of students with learning disabilities, students in emotional support classes, and members of the refugee and immigrant population.

The KRUNK Movement is a student-led music and health initiative of the Center of Life that will continue to serve teens during this challenging time. KRUNK's music engages listeners in social justice issues through the elements of hip-hop, and the program promotes positive physical and mental health by training teens in the practice of mindfulness, deep breathing, and other stress coping strategies.

Steel Smiling will provide space for Black, high school-aged young people to process and positively cope with both the disruptions in their lives caused by COVID-19 and continued incidents of police brutality and anti-Black racism against Black people. Their program will also educate teens about the triggers and symptoms of mental illnesses and engaging in emotional regulation and stress management skills development.

Teen Leadership Board members at The Friendship Circle will spearhead an innovative peer-support program called FC Crews. Along with a behavioral health education program, FC Crews will empower teens of all abilities to be active listeners, supportive friends, and better leaders.

These new JHF grants, along with grants to 9 other organizations in Allegheny County, extend the Foundation's efforts around community-based teen mental health programming from an initial $80,000 grant awarded to Jewish Family and Community Services in March 2020. Those funds were initially set to develop a teen mental health and wellness space called UpStreet, but now have also helped to expand virtual programming and text-based support designed in collaboration with a diverse youth advisory committee.

Grants are also awarded to Alliance for Refugee Youth Support and Education, Boys & Girls Clubs of Western PA, UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, Gwen's Girls, Homewood Children's Village, The Neighborhood Academy, A+ Schools, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, and Repair the World Pittsburgh. All grant recipients will be invited to participate in a new teen mental health agency alliance in order to share program ideas and learning, technical expertise, challenges and opportunities, and forge new collaborations.

As Dr. Steven Adelsheim, Squirrel Hill native and clinical professor at Stanford Hospital, wrote in a recent opinion piece on adolescent mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, "Both the experiences our young people face now and the supports they receive from us in coping with and navigating these challenges will have profound impacts on their abilities to be successful adults, parents, and citizens for years to come. By making the investment of support, commitment, and care for our youth right now, we will be building the foundation for a hopeful and viable future."

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If you need mental health assistance, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. 

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