Teen Mental Health Collaborative Grantees Bolster Mental Health Services During COVID-19 Pandemic

ARYSE students participate in an After School Club program

This is the third article in a series on the JHF Teen Mental Health Collaborative grantees and their work to provide mental wellness and peer supports to Allegheny County youth during the COVID-19 pandemic, aided by emergency grants from JHF. Click here to read the most recent articles in the series.

The Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) has convened local community-based organizations that interface with teens in a Teen Mental Health Collaborative, to explore ways they can promote teen mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several member organizations embedded mental wellness programming within their existing services, focused on peer support, and bolstered counseling services.

In the 2020-2021 school year, the After School Club at ARYSE (Alliance for Refugee Youth Support and Education) provided dozens of refugee youth living in Pittsburgh with virtual homework help, enrichment, and mentorship. Support from JHF provided ARYSE with the resources to have interpreters at every session, ensuring youth at all stages of English language development were fully able to engage, participate, and develop meaningful relationships. Even after a full school day online, ARYSE youth eagerly attended the After School Club 3-5 evenings per week, where they found a strong sense of community amid the isolation of the pandemic.

Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania (BGCWPA) focused on increasing social connection opportunities for teens, both in-person or virtual. BGCWPA reached over 200 teens through their virtual Teen Outreach Program (TOP), a social and emotional learning program that aims to build teens' skills, strengthen their relationships, and guide them in developing a positive sense of self. TOP is a unique combination of engaging curriculum and Community Service Learning (CSL), consisting of weekly meetings where the youth participate in youth-led, peer-to-peer discussions about a range of issues and topics. Their end-of-summer Teen Bash brought together over 50 teens for in-person social activities.

The Friendship Circle engaged teens on FC Crew meetups led by their Teen Leadership Board to promote connection and social support for teens of all abilities throughout the pandemic. The meetups were loosely structured, and groups would start off by sharing highs and lows, then carry on natural conversation as any friend group would. Every meetup was overseen by Friendship Circle staff, so that they were able to cultivate relationships with teen participants and offer resources. One participant shared, "Crew makes me feel happy and welcomed. I feel accepted and like I can share my struggles and challenges and good things. I wouldn't change a thing [about FC Crew]."

The Neighborhood Academy offers a holistic model to support over 140 students who otherwise would not be able to afford a college-preparatory education. To help these students achieve their academic goals, The Neighborhood Academy works to create a school community and culture that acts as a home away from home for students, helping them to see school as a welcoming place and encouraging collective responsibility for a positive school culture. A major part of supportive services offered is mental health counseling from their Counseling Department, comprised of two full-time staff. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these services were enhanced by offering in-home assessments and counseling supports, providing external resources when necessary, and launching a counseling group for middle school students.

Repair the World provided 35 teens in their PeerCorps program with resources, service and learning opportunities, and community-building grounded in Jewish values to support their mental and emotional wellness. By developing a learning curriculum around identity and cultural competency with an external educator, Repair the World provided a space for teens to better understand their identities, including their identities as Jews, and empowered them through their identity development and challenges.

UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh conducted outreach with youth involved in the juvenile court system without a mental health diagnosis to offer the My Health and Wellness Plan virtual needs assessment, connect teens with mental health resources, and teach skills that enhance resiliency through a yoga intervention. The assessment enabled the social work team to engage youth in a dialogue about their views of mental health, help them identify their own strengths and coping skills, and address stigma.

UpStreet's peer mentoring program paired similarly aged students in a text-based supportive relationship. Mentors are vetted and trained before they are matched with their mentee. Text-based peer mentoring normalizes receiving support for difficult experiences, helping youth develop resilience, and reducing the stigma of seeking mental health support. It is also a developmentally appropriate and easily accessible way for teens and adolescents to connect. UpStreet is always looking for more people to join the program, and youth seeking a mentor can find the application here.

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