Through intensive and personal work with our local teenagers, I’ve discovered the startling fact that our teens are really struggling and do not feel like they have the support they need. They are crumbling under the pressure to succeed in school and in life. Our Napa community tragically lost two teenagers to suicide in 2016, motivating my colleagues and me to dive deeper into the mental and emotional health of our teens through our grassroots group, Village: Napa. We discovered that many of them have considered suicide, a harrowing fact that led me to formalize my work with teens by founding a nonprofit called Teens Connect.
Teens Connect is meeting teens where they are, to offer support, a platform for them to be heard in our community, and engagement in meaningful, interpersonal work. We collaborate with Mentis, the Napa Valley Unified School District, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Napa Valley, Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership, Ekam Yoga and Wellness, the Napa Police Department Youth Services Bureau and other organizations, to empower teens through programs centered around art and wellness, professional therapy, peer support and volunteer projects.
When my boys were little, we were part of a parent-participation, cooperative preschool, Napa Valley Nursery School. Their motto, “Together We’re Better,” perfectly summed up the holistic approach to learning which they explain as “teacher, parents, and children work, play, learn and grow together as family and as a supportive community for each other.” I learned so much about my children and myself, most importantly how to guide my boys safely through the rambunctious toddler years, while embracing their individuality and teaching them how to interact with others. It was this collaborative approach that set the stage for my parenting, and has greatly influenced how I engage with my now teenage boys and their peers.
Neuropsychiatrist and New York Times best-selling author Daniel Siegel says adolescence is, “An essential time of emotional intensity, social engagement, and creativity,” and therefore has similar qualities to the growth and brain development during the early toddler years. Teens are absorbing everything around them, trying to make sense of the world, learning how to be adults, naturally pushing boundaries, and discovering their individual and collective identities. Being a teen can be scary and confusing. However, with the right support, it can also be exciting, engaging and empowering.
Taking a holistic, community approach to raising children and making the final years of their adolescence positive ones is vital to the future of our world. Other people’s children are our children’s community—their future co-workers, neighbors and friends. In order to create a stronger, healthier community for our children, we must take care of the health of our collective youth.
One of the first and most important steps is to break the stigma around mental health so that we can effectively identify and address issues at this crucial age. Our teens need us to build them a comprehensive support structure together as parents, teachers, therapists, mentors, and friends. We must give them a voice and then listen to what they have to say. Teens have so much to offer. Blogger Christie Halverson says, “They are funny, smart, eager to please and up for just about anything, as long as food is involved. They have the most generous hearts and want desperately to be loved and validated.”
“I am continually impressed how teens will use mental health support and open up to adults when they feel they are being heard and understood without being reacted to,” said Rob Weiss, Executive Director, Mentis.
Cassie, an 11th grade student at Vintage High School added, “Being part of Teens Connect has helped me know that I’m not alone and that I’m surrounded by people who want to help me, and it has inspired me to help others who have struggled the same way I have.”
Ensuring the wellbeing of our teens is a community responsibility and we must do better in supporting, inspiring and engaging them, so that they can make it through high school intact, while also being emotionally prepared to leave the nest and become happy, thriving adults.
“I wish I had an outlet for my anxiety.”
“I hide in the bathroom at school when I’m having a panic attack.”
“I don’t have anyone to talk to.”
“I just want to find that one person.”
“I have no love. I am alone. I don’t want to live.”
These are a few of the many comments I’ve heard from teens over the past year. - Jeni Olsen
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Want to find out how you and/or your teen can get involved?