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Raising Resilient Teens: An expert panel provides perspective and insight

The four teen mental health experts: David Brent, MD; Judith Cohen, MD; Liz Miller, MD, PhD; and Gil Zalsman, MD.
Four renowned teen mental health experts gathered in Squirrel Hill on Sunday, November 3 to share information about fostering resilience in youth, responding to trauma, and identifying mental health risks and warning signs.

According to a report released in October by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide deaths for people ages 10 to 24 have increased 56% in the past decade. Homicides among that age group are also on the rise after a long period of decline. Additionally, in Pennsylvania 38.1% of high school students reported feeling depressed or sad most days in the past 12 months. On top of these national and state trends, the panel discussion also took place in the shadow of the one-year anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, and the shared communal trauma beyond October 27, 2018.

The discussion was moderated by David Brent, MD, Psychiatry and Pediatrics Professor and Endowed Chair in Suicide Studies, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and STAR-Center Director at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Panelists included Judith Cohen, MD, Medicine Psychology Professor at Drexel University College of Medicine, and Medical Director at Allegheny Health Network's Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents; Liz Miller, MD, PhD, Chief of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and Pediatrics Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; and Gil Zalsman, MD, CEO of Geha Mental Health Center, Israel and chair of Israel's National Council of Suicide Prevention.

The panel discussed how to detect signs of trauma, depression, or suicidal thoughts in children. "The real message here is that there is no one sign to look for if you think something bad has happened to your child," said Dr. Cohen. "If there is a sudden change, you should think about traumatic experiences or stressors that may be impacting the child."

Over 100 guests attended the event at the Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh.
The panel reiterated the importance of simply asking your child if you suspect a change, whether it be depression, suicidal thoughts, or another issue. As Dr. Cohen also reminded the audience, "If you have any questions, you should seek help from your pediatrician or a medical professional."

Dr. Zalsman emphasized that "a sudden change from former behavior is key." He clarified that asking children about suicidal thoughts will not prompt them to think about suicide, a common misconception. "Asking is not dangerous," Dr. Zalsman stressed. "Asking is a big relief."

Panelists and participants raised a variety of issues important to teen mental health, from internet safety and understanding consent to removing blame from victims and the importance of regular sleep and routine. They all agreed that resiliency skills can be learned and practiced, supported by activities like family rituals and sports. But, parental modeling can too. As Dr. Cohen noted, "Parents can help their children by teaching them to deal with challenging situations when they arise, helping them develop the skills to manage negative emotions or physical responses to stress."

As the event came to a close, conversation turned to community. "Resilience is much more than one person's capacity," concluded Dr. Zalsman. "Children are part of a family, and a family is part of a community. If the entire system is resilient, a child can recover from a terrible trauma."

Read more about Raising Resilient Teens in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle or listen to the full discussion on the Jewish Healthcare Foundation Podcast.

Raising Resilient Teens was co-sponsored by Jewish Family & Community Services, 10.27 Healing Partnership, Community Day School, Hillel Academy, Yeshiva Schools, The Friendship Circle, and The Second Floor at the JCC. 

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