Saturday February 2, 2013

PITTSFIELD -- Adolescents and young adults may face adversities in their lives they can't escape -- a drunk parent, an illness or bullying, for example.

On Friday, more than 250 adults from Berkshire County and statewide stepped forward, ready to help youths build resilience in facing stressors and pain.

These adults, including medical health professionals, educators and administrators, parents, social workers, clergy members and other youth workers, all participated in Friday's daylong conference, "Building Resilience & Protective Factors for the Youth in our Community: Evidence-based Strategies for Mental Health."

Co-organizer Sarah Perrone of Berkshire Medical Center said an additional 50 people were on a waiting list to attend the event, which was supported by a grant from the state Department of Public Health Suicide Prevention Program. The conference was video recorded and will be available for use by professionals working with youths.

"Our goal for this event is to have the community have a better understanding of what the protective factors are that can support our children," Perrone said. "We have to work together as a community for our youth. There are so many people in this room who have come today to do that. It's inspiring.


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Among the participants were Alicianna Kocsis of Childcare of the Berkshires' Health Families Program; Carmel Steiger, a behavioral health case manager from Tufts Health Plan; and Chris Biernacki, a physician's assistant who is preparing to do outpatient work for the Brien Center. All three adults said they attended the conference so they can help teach their clients the skills of resilience, from hope and a sense of self-worth, to empathy and impulse control.

"In my work, we work with teen and first-time parents," Kocsis said. "If we start teaching these things early on, we can help them change the cycle."

Dr. Alex Sabo, head of the psychiatry department at Berkshire Medical Center, and Deborah Cole-Duffy, director of outpatient services for ServiceNet in Pittsfield, served as emcees for the event and also led panel discussions.

Featured speakers included BMC child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Brenda Butler; Dr. John Miner, co-director of psychological counseling services at Williams College; and Christopher Overtree, director of they Psychological Services Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The speakers highlighted a range of strategies, noting psychology journals and studies, spiritual approaches, even a mobile app for assessing various symptoms of stress and depression.

But a panel of three young adults, who experienced a range of hardships and have since been able to persevere, echoed how the best strategies to help build resilience in youth are simple ones.

"Listening is a huge factor, and just being there," said Samantha, 19, who receives services through the Brien Center.

For Alf, who turns 20 next week, his struggles stemmed from home life and an alcoholic parent.

He said his well-being works like the interdependent sides of a triangle, with sides representing education, social life and daily living situation.

"If one side falls down, it all will collapse," said the young man, who said he now thrives on sports, yoga, good food and meditation.

Mike, 22, said "friends, family and being active" are his resiliency factors.

His advice for people who struggle with stress and adversity: "Be strong and don't fear the help of others."

All three young adults also emphasized that whether it be a dietary, pharmaceutical or other kinds of therapeutic approach, adults should not assume that one strategy will work for every individual.

"You can't classify every teenager as one kid," Alf said.