NORTH ADAMS — We all have "issues," and teenagers are no exception. But when comes to confronting those issues, it's important to acknowledge that not all teens and young adults who may be struggle are just "going through a phrase."
For their annual forum, the members of the UNITY Youth Leadership Program (YLP) of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition decided to focus on the fact that approximately 1 in 5 people between the ages of 13 and 18, are living with or will develop a serious mental health issue, like clinical depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorders among others.
"A lot of us are struggling and going through difficult things, but it's not really talked about. Or, if it is, it's not in a positive way," said program member Marleigh Briggs, a sophomore at Mount Greylock Regional High School.
She and her YLP group members — Asha Kelton, Christina Briggs, Malina Ziaja, Lana Kingsley and Brittany Green — co-presented a 90-minute forum on "Youth and Mental Health," offering insight and advice on how community members can better support young people who are facing a range of challenges. A total of 75 people, from local legislators to families, attended the forum, which was held at The Green. Three panelists — teacher Chris Carr, therapeutic counselor Brianna Rousseau, and youth worker Jessica Sweeney — also helped field questions from their professional experiences during an audience Q&A.
"It means so much to have the community here," said UNITY Program Coordinator Tim Shiebler, who moderated the evening with support from program associate, Carrisa Sacherski.
"One of the most important aspects of YLP is that youth really take the lead in everything we do," Shiebler said.
Which is why the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition each year dedicates one of its monthly meetings to the community's younger generation. Last year's group held a forum on teen stress and anxiety, and this year's group felt the issue of mental health and how to help would be an important way to follow up.
Ziaja spoke of the statistics of youths and mental health, including the facts that while half of lifetime cases of mental illnesses develop by age 14, only about a third of young people receive any form of treatment, citing research published by the National Institute of Mental Health.
Kingsley emphasized the importance of spreading good information and statistics; using positive language around mental health and illness; and suggested that people avoid using terms like "that's crazy" or "that's mental" or "I'm so bipolar" in casual statements because it can diminish the gravity of someone's diagnosis.
Both Green and Christina Briggs self-identified to their audience their own clinically diagnosed disorders; Green struggles with depression and Briggs has battled with severe anxiety. Marleigh Briggs spoke of being a "listener" in an online community at 7cups.com, which provides free and confidential support to people in emotional distress from trained teenage and adult listeners.
The common denominator for finding help in times of trouble is being heard without judgement and being directed towards a range of options for more support as well as clinical treatment.
Since schools and classrooms are where children and teenagers spend a lot of time, the teen speakers suggested that teachers come up with discreet ways and practices of listening to and helping students. Green said providing pamphlets or cards are great ideas, but putting them at the front of the classroom on teacher's desks is not.
"Put them in the bathrooms or the hallways so students can discretely grab something while they're walking by," Green said.
Christina Briggs talked about a teacher who found out about students with mental illnesses before they arrived to the classroom, and then met with them to hear about their struggles. The teacher gave those students a token or eraser. "So when the students pulled them out and put them a at the front of their desk, the teacher knew they were struggling and that maybe it was not the right time to call on them. Then the teacher would catch up with them after class to see if the students needed help," she said.
Kelton also spoke of the need for young people to reach out and support one another, and to practice self-care. "Be kind," she said.
In terms of self-care, she added that it's "not just splurging on bath bombs and face masks," but it's also about "going to bed early, letting go of toxic "friends," taking shower, and reaching out to seek help."
Jenn Smith can be reached at
at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter
resources for youths
Brien Center crisis line: 1-800-252-0227 (Berkshire County only) for 24/7 emergency support.
National crisis text line: Text "HELLO" to 741741 or via Facebook.com/CrisisTextLine to chat with free, anonymous, confidential trained listeners.
7cups.com: Free counseling and chat with trained listeners for depression and anxiety.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 for free, 24/7, confidential support and resources for those in crisis or those looking to help someone in crisis.
Trevor Lifeline: 866-488-7386 for specialized support for those identifying as LGBTQ+.