Jewish Family Service is looking to grow and impact more youth in our community by providing engaging programming and events that help them understand the signs of mental illness, strategies to cope and the importance of asking for help if they are struggling.
Youth mental health challenges have been on the rise, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. News outlets report that increasingly younger children are ending up in hospital emergency rooms experiencing mental health crises. In fact, three prominent children’s health organizations recently declared the rise in youth mental illness a national emergency.
The local Jewish community saw this unfortunate challenge coming, and that was the reason the We Need to Talk youth mental health program was created back in 2017.
“We Need to Talk was developed by Federation and its partners in response to a 2016 community needs assessment that revealed a significant amount of our youth were struggling with sadness, anxiety and depression,” said Todd Krieger, senior planning director at Jewish Federation and a member of the team that developed the program. “It was created to raise awareness of mental health issues in our community, reduce stigma and increase access to services.”
Four years after its creation, the day-to-day operations of the program are now moving to Jewish Family Service, so the program can be more closely aligned with a community organization that provides formal behavioral health supports. I, a clinical social worker, have been hired as coordinator of We Need to Talk, and my perspective and experience as a youth mental professional will help to guide the initiative through its next stage.
I’ve seen firsthand how today’s youth are under immense pressure to fit in and succeed and often feel challenged to meet the high expectations that are set for them. But that pressure doesn’t need to be debilitating. We’re looking to grow and impact more youth in our community by providing engaging programming and events that help them understand the signs of mental illness, strategies to cope and the importance of asking for help if they are struggling.
Time to Transition
“From its inception, Jewish Family Service has been an integral part of We Need to Talk and an important community partner providing training, program assistance and formal supports,” said Ashley Schnaar, former youth mental health coordinator who now serves as Federation’s planning associate. “As we continue to make our way through COVID, now is an ideal time to transition the program to JFS, which is well positioned to continue the impactful work that was started and even take the program to the next level. While the day-to-day operations of the program will be leaving Federation, we’ll continue to be involved in program strategy and play a critical role in ensuring the program is properly funded.”
Perry Ohren, JFS CEO, is appreciative to Federation for taking on the issue of youth mental health. “JFS is a proud Federation partner,” Ohren said. “We’ll continue to do this critical work alongside the many other community organizations who have been working on this. Together, we can help young people learn to manage their mental wellness and avoid tragic outcomes.”
We Need to Talk has made significant progress in addressing its three programmatic pillars: awareness, knowledge and skills, and access. Since its inception, nearly 1,000 community professionals have been trained in mental health and suicide alertness trainings, more than 5,100 community members have attended 37 events, and funding has been secured for more youth mental health professionals, which include social workers at Tamarack Camps, school social workers at the Jewish day schools and yeshivahs, and a child psychiatrist at JFS.
“Federation has done a remarkable job developing and creating the foundation for this initiative and making a real impact in our community, said Dini Peterson, chief program officer at JFS. “We look forward to continuing to partner with Federation and everyone else — from synagogues to day schools to camps — who have dedicated so much time and effort to this vital initiative. It is critical we ensure our youth’s mental health needs are addressed.”
Julia Cohen, LMSW, is the youth mental health coordinator at Jewish Family Service.