Learning life skills empowers teens to address mental health

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, one in five of adolescents (20 percent) have a diagnosable mental health disorder with problems starting as early as 14 years old. If left untreated, teens can face isolation and discrimination. Undiagnosed and untreated trauma and mental health issues may lead to increased emotional and behavioral problems, and can severely influence a teen’s development.

Each month, at the open house/virtual tour If These Walls Could Talk hosted by Family Service, Youth Development Director Karen Pillis gives an update on the story shared by Feness. What always strikes me in Karen’s update is how strong the connection remains between Feness, who graduated from high school and our Teen Outreach Program® (TOP®) in 2015, and our youth development staff.

Because of her experience in TOP®, Feness has learned how to reach out for help when she needs it. Whether for emotional support, career advice, or just a listening ear—she realizes the importance of maintaining a support network, within her family and her community.

Through programs such as the Positive Action or TOP®, youth development specialists provide a well-rounded experience. They teach life skills and help youth understand more about themselves, their values, their challenges, and goals. Self-examination allows young people to become more aware of their personal struggles and recognize they already have the tools (life skills) to either manage those struggles or recognize they might need help.

You may wonder, what are “life skills”? For a technical response, let’s look at UNICEF’s definition:

“[life skills] are defined as psychosocial abilities for adaptive and positive [behavior] that [enables] individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.”

Life skills are those skills needed for a person to make the most out of life, including problem-solving, conflict resolution, leadership, money management, communication, etc.

If you Google “life skills” and “teens” or “youth”, you receive over 5,900,000 results listing the top life skills that teens need.

What is the correlation between Life Skills and Mental Health for youth?

According to a survey commissioned by the Born This Way Foundation, out of 3,000 young people (ages 15 to 24), 88 percent of high school students consider their mental health a very important priority, with 34 percent finding it somewhat an important priority. And many young people reported they are unaware whether they have access to resources that would support their mental health or said they believe they do not have access to them.

This makes the work our Youth Development Specialists do each day with elementary, middle and high school students across our community extremely important.

In the Teen Outreach Program®, youth development specialists teach life skills in a myriad of ways. They have classroom activities to specifically address age-appropriate issues, such as “Drug and Alcohol Jeopardy” and “STD Jeopardy”.

Not only do these types of activities disseminate important information, but also open doors for teens to have a discussion. Youth development specialists focus on letting teens speak, allowing them to discuss and enhance their communication skills (as well as other life skills).

While some might believe “communication” is speaking, it encompasses much more. By being a good communicator you speak in a clear and concise manner, are a good listener, able to react to nonverbal cues, confident in interactions, empathetic and respect the opinions of others, and open-minded.

By being able to communicate effectively, teens already have a valuable tool in their toolbox. If an individual does not communicate well, they may misinterpret non-verbal cues (leading to conflict or misunderstanding), withdraw and not speak if struggling with depression or anxiety, or feel irritable or have outbursts due to the inability to express their feelings or needs.

In addition to having open lines of communication, youth development specialists also provide formal activities that focus on managing mental health.

Teens do an activity where they work through a questionnaire on stress.  As the teens work through it as a class, they share their own experiences, and youth development specialists provide strategies for managing stress.

In addition to classroom activities, teens take part in service projects around the community. Service projects allow teens to develop and shape perspectives on their communities and being in service of others. By volunteering in service projects in their community, teens are able to increase their self-confidence (having a sense of purpose), reduce their stress levels, build bonds, and create friends.

Youth Development Specialists engage youth in service learning opportunities and lead regular group meetings. Young people in these groups learn from positive adult role models and like-minded youth to develop important life skills.

They work in school, after school and community settings to help young people identify their own strengths and build healthy decision-making skills. Positive Action for elementary school aged students, and Teen Outreach Program® for middle and high school-aged students are evidence-based programs to address:

      • Self-Esteem
      • Effective Communication
      • Goal Setting
      • Healthy Relationships
      • Substance Use Prevention

They also make referrals to other community-based therapeutic services offered through Family Service, such as community counseling. They can also share resources with families about outpatient counseling if they think that would help a teen struggling with anxiety or depression.

To learn more about summer activities and how your teen can get involved, call Sarah Jane Lawrence at 540-795-4649 or email slawrence@nullfsrv.org.