By Beth Lipschutz, Regional Director, NFTY Missouri Valley
To save one life is to save the world, and I am lucky enough to work for an organization that not only uses this idea in its teachings, but also in its actions. The URJ, NFTY, and the RAC have supported me and the NFTY Missouri Valley teens in teaching their peers about mental health in order to eliminate stigma, recognize warning signs, and practice healthy coping skills. Our teens believe in the importance of taking care of their mental health, and for the first time in my career, I had the opportunity to stand up for legislation supporting them.
My opportunity began when I attended a Jewish Women International breakfast at the Colorado State Capital on International Women’s Day, when I met Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet and learned about her work on a Youth Suicide Prevention bill. The bill included up to three sessions of confidential mental health counseling for teens as young as twelve, funding to train more people such as youth professionals, clergy, and coaches in Teen Mental Health First Aid, and increased resources for the text support suicide hotline. When Representative Michaelson Jenet learned that I work with a Jewish youth group, she asked if I would be willing to testify about the importance of teen mental health services in front of a House Committee the next day.
The next morning, I arrived at the Colorado State Capital with a NFTY teen who had been recently inspired to take action while participating in L’Taken with the Religious Action Center. So many people came to testify in support of this bill that we were asked to sit in an overflow room to listen to the other testimonies until it was my turn to speak. After listening to Representative Michaelson Jenet present the specifics of the bill, a group of teen refugees spoke about their need for services to help them cope with the challenges they are facing in a new country that their parents might not understand. Several other adults who work with teens or have a personal connection to teen suicide also testified. After their testimonies, an aide came to the overflow room to bring me in to speak to the committee. Here is a piece of my testimony:
My current role as the regional director of a youth group is to connect teens with necessary mental health resources. The number of teens I work with who need some mental health assistance has greatly increased in the past few years. While the groups of teens I work with often have all the privileges that we want for any teen, even the most privileged and seemingly well-adjusted teen may not feel comfortable going to their parents when they feel like they are failing and need support.
I am often the first adult to learn that a teen is struggling with their mental health. Most of the time, their friends notice something and come to me as a trusted adult. Then, I reach out to the teen, family, and/or a clergy member or synagogue professional, depending on the situation. Best case scenario, they have parents who are willing and able to get them mental health support. But what if the situation is different? I’ve worked with parents who aren’t able to see that their teen needs help because “they said they were fine when I asked.” Then what? This bill would allow me to connect teens as young as twelve to the services they need.
I am fortunate that I have been able to complete the course in Teen Mental Health First Aid, however, different teens connect with different adults. Every adult who works with teens should know more about signs and symptoms of mental health concerns in teens and what to do about them. Studies show the importance of teens having at least one adult that is not a parent in their lives, who they view as a trusted individual. Teens would be safer if that trusted individual was also trained in Teen Mental Health First Aid.
It is essential that all teens have accessible services in a place they are comfortable without having to overcome any extra hurdles or stigma. This bill could build a system where teens can work through what they need as individuals as well as work through how to communicate with their parents. We can keep telling teens that they matter and are loved, but they also need to know that it is okay to ask for and receive help.
I was nervous, I spoke too fast, and I didn’t have the expertise to answer all of the committee’s questions; however, I was sure I did the right thing when on the way home, the teen who came with me told me about some of her friends who would benefit greatly from the passing of this bill. There are so many teens who do not have a trusted adult to go to for guidance. If we can provide easier access to mental health services for struggling teens so that they never progress to suicidal ideation, we are building a healthier, more confident generation who can positively contribute to their communities. After all, to save one life is to save the world.