Working to address the mental-health crisis among children and teenagers


Though many consider the COVID-19 pandemic to be over, the effects it has had on young people’s mental health are not so easily dealt with.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says even before that, 20% of American children between the ages of 3 and 17 were experiencing mental, emotional, developmental and behavioral disorders. Additionally, they noted that 17% of high-schoolers have seriously considered suicide.

Brittni Barcase, creator of the BeWell program at JCS, leads students from
a local high school in a mindfulness exercise. (Courtesy of Jacki Ashkin)

The pandemic only worsened things, leading U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to describe what followed as a “youth mental-health crisis.”

“All of the experts say we’re going to see the effects for years,” said Jacki Ashkin, director of community connections at Jewish Community Services. “Even though life is beginning to return to a post-pandemic state, these issues are going to continue for many, many years.”

To address the current crisis, the Jewish Federations of North America, which represents 146 independent Jewish federations and 300 smaller communities, has spearheaded a first-of-its-kind wellness initiative to equip the Jewish community with tools, resources and training to support the mental health and overall well-being of teens and young adults. The $2.75 million program, called BeWell, is being undertaken in partnership with the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies — the international umbrella organization of 158 agencies in North America and Israel for family and vocational services, elder care, addiction and other services, said JTA.

Closer to home, two similarly named programs are attempting to address this crisis among children and teenagers in the Baltimore area. Jewish Community Services, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, offers a variety of mental-health and substance abuse-focused programming for children, teenagers and adults. Its BeWell program for teenagers and adults, along with its beeWeLL program for younger children, are some of its most all-encompassing.

The fact that it has the same name as the Jewish Federations of North America’s program is sheer coincidence, according to organizers, and yet the JCS’s BeWell programs have a similar focus on giving children and teenagers constructive ways to face their inner struggles. It was founded four years ago by Brittni Barcase, one of JCS’s health and wellness educators. Barcase is a yoga instructor who specializes in meditation, which gave her a unique perspective on mental health and wellness.

“She brought in a concept of full-body wellness, not just teaching in increments,” said Jennifer Rudo, another health and wellness educator. “We took some of those ideas and created what we think is an incredible program.”

beeWeLL was created by health and wellness educator Susan Kurlander based on her 30 years of experience working with young children. Both it and its counterpart aimed at an older audience are delivered to schools starting with preschool.

“Part of it is helping [kids] to understand their emotions and be aware of them,” said Ashkin. “We move on to healthy coping strategies, and that’s where mindfulness comes in. It’s a lot of stress-management techniques, body movement, breathing exercises and meditations.”

In addition to physical activities, BeWell and beeWeLL aim to encourage mindfulness and healthy coping mechanisms in formats youth can understand. Younger participants learn through picture books, such as “Ezra’s Invisible Backpack” by Dina Rock and Hannah Cohen, which likens emotions to things a person carries in their backpack.

Kurlander also relayed the story of a young child who had come from a “problem situation” and had participated in an “Ezra’s Invisible Backpack” program. “On the way out, he said something to the teacher that made us all stop in our tracks,” she recalled. “He said ‘my backpack already feels lighter.’ This child was new to the school, yet he already got the concept of the backpack and the feelings we carry with us.”

Future plans for JCS’s mental-health offerings include the launch of Wellness My Way, an online portal for experiential programming formatted like a video game with multiple story routes. Participants will be able to do so from their own homes.

“And we’re available for support and guidance,” added Kurlander. “We’re very much a presence.”

Based on a JTA article by Stewart Ain, sponsored by the Jewish Federations of America

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