Charlotte, North Carolina
A room full of teenagers – old friends and strangers – stood with their hands together, their feet or backs together and their eyes closed.
“We are never alone in the world,” says Davis Cooke, 18, a high school student and founder of the group, which led the teens in meditation. “We are connected to larger communities that support us.”
It’s not the kind of Wednesday night you’d expect teenagers to get excited about after finishing their homework and extracurricular activities, but this group of eight said they looked forward to the monthly mental health sessions with church leaders from Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte.
Many high school students are affected by what experts have called an adolescent mental health crisis, according to a survey released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March.
Overall, more than a third of high school students in the United States experienced poor mental health at least most of the time during the Covid-19 pandemic, the CDC survey found. More than 2 in 5 students had experienced persistent sadness or hopelessness that caused them to stop doing some usual activities. About 1 in 5 students seriously considered suicide and about 1 in 10 had attempted suicide.
“(The teens) realized this was a national emergency and it was life and death,” said Michelle Thomas-Bush, associate pastor for youth at Myers Park Presbyterian. “If they can give them resources…for the chronic stress they face, it can be a gift for life.”
The church program reunited in 2021 after a long history of occasional mental health programs. It was then that church leaders learned of the number of teens in the area who had died by suicide – and members of his own congregation who had been affected. While eight teens between the ages of 14 and 18 attended the recent September meeting, approximately 40 teens participated in the program and 12 became certified advocates.
Advocates undergo training by church leaders in skills such as problem solving, breathing techniques, self-compassion, mindfulness and meditation. Then they can bring these tools to teach their peers during monthly check-ins – with guidance from adults who are always in the room to provide structure and offer support.
“Over the past year, I’ve learned that mental health is an issue that most high school students face. Sometimes we forget about it, we think everyone is fine, when in reality it might not be,” one student told the meeting. “Check out the ones you think are okay. They may not be.
Most teens at the September meeting reported losing someone to suicide, receiving a phone call from a friend who was contemplating suicide, having had suicidal ideation (thinking or planning suicide) or a combination three.
Mental health checkups are meant to provide support for teens in crisis, connect their friends with adults who can step in, and help students who are feeling good invest in their mental health, Thomas-Bush said.
“We’re all going to have a meltdown, we’re all going to have a tough day,” Thomas-Bush said. “We want to give them the tools of life and the resources to deal with it.
One of the most important parts of the evening was the time for the teenagers to check on each other.
It first happened with the group slumped on sofas, chairs and ottomans. They went one by one, with a card listing and categorizing different words to describe emotions, to say how they felt that day.
Words such as stress were clarified to mean frustration, and upon discussion someone realized that he was not just happy – he was joyful.
Then they moved around a table full of Chipotle bowls, and eating together helped them break into smaller groups and open up more with each other. They shared laughs and giggles, reproaches and moans about school, family and friends.
To get the vulnerability group members need to support each other, Thomas-Bush said the adults leading the group make sure the teens can share time to talk about the tough stuff, let loose and have fun. .
A teenager at the September session said she came to her first meeting because it was important, but kept coming back because she was having so much fun and saw such benefit in get together to share their mental health with their friends.
Another girl agreed, saying she usually sees people keeping quiet about their feelings because talking about them could be perceived as attention seeking. But now that she can get together with friends from different schools, she feels more confident to speak directly about her experiences.
Let’s talk about something that’s stressing you out, Thomas-Bush told teens. It was no surprise that the university appeared.
The teens came up with a worst-case scenario: They don’t get into any of the colleges they apply to. Then they learned to decatastrophize, a psychological tool that explores the reality of a feared situation to lessen imagined danger, according to the American Psychological Association.
The consequences of not getting into college would be that it would affect their future, but there were things they could do about it, the teenagers were chatting from their seats around the cozy room. They could take a year off to volunteer, do work abroad, or do an internship in their future career path, then try again.
Now that they knew how to fix the problem, what were the real odds of the worst-case scenario happening? After some thought, they decided that while they might not get into their first choice school, they could choose some of their other choices.
Decatastrophizing is one of the tools that the members of the group have practiced to reclaim everyday life.
A teenage girl mentioned that her parents often ask her if something she’s worried about won’t matter in three minutes, three hours, three days, three months, or three years to help her stay on track.
Cooke, one of the group’s founders, countered by saying that while it’s good to take a step back, even the short-term pain is worth feeling.
“Maybe it won’t matter in three days, but I might still need a minute,” Cooke said.
When asked what parents should know about children, many students said that sometimes teenagers just need space to express their feelings. They also suggested that parents might also need to learn how to use these psychological tools.
Psychologist Lisa Damour, author of “The Emotional Life of Teens: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Teens,” suggested a few items for such a list. First, adults need to ensure that adolescents, however good they are at helping each other, do not feel entirely responsible for the mental well-being of their peers.
“It’s hard enough being a teenager, and I would never want to feel like a teenager believes their friend’s life is in their hands,” said Damour, who lives in Ohio.
“While these groups are willing to help each other, they are not always equipped with the tools that mental health professionals are trained to use,” added Chicago-based psychologist John Duffy. “The well-being of teenagers who need professional attention can sometimes be in the hands of other teenagers.”
He said it is essential for these groups to have a trained professional adult present.
“That’s why there are adults in the room, because they can let us know, and we can take that from them,” Thomas-Bush said. “We are not responsible for doing therapy, we are not responsible for helping them sort out the situation. We are not responsible for protecting them every minute of the day. We are responsible for letting parents know when we know they are going to harm themselves.
This is where the second thing Damour wants families to know comes in: to honor the supportive abilities of teens while teaching them to ask adults for help so that they or their friends can get a more professional support when they need it.
“There is work to be done in talking to teenagers about whether they would feel comfortable alerting an adult, what might bother them, what adults can do to make themselves more accessible to teenagers when ‘they worry about their friends,’ she added. .
The last bit of salsa had been scraped from the bowl and the students piled into their parents’ cars as Cooke watched the church parking lot.
One of the girls in the shoot seemed calmer than usual, he said. He decided he would check in with her later in private and ask her how she was feeling.
Cooke went back to talk to Thomas-Bush, who was closing the church, so he could enlist his help in supporting his friend.
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