By Jeni Olsen
Originally published in Napa Valley Features on July 20th, 2023
NAPA, Calif. — Over the past six years hundreds of parents and caregivers have reached out to me for advice about how to support their struggling teenagers. This is not something I expected to happen when I started my tiny nonprofit, Teens Connect, with a mission to support youth mental health and wellness (Teens Connect has since merged with Mentis, Napa’s Center for Mental Health). I’m not a social worker or a counselor or a teacher. I’m a graphic designer by trade, which requires a very different skill set from what it takes to support youth mental health. However, I have become someone people trust when it comes to teens, not because I went to school to learn what I know but because I have spent the last six years really, truly listening to them.
Napa lost two teenagers to suicide in 2016. Back then I was running my design business and spending my free time helping my son, Max, and his middle-school friends connect to volunteer projects. Through volunteering, they learned how to think beyond their personal needs and to consider the needs of others. They became more self-aware and unlocked their innate empathy, they learned how to support each other when they witnessed hard things, and they gained a new perspective on the world. I loved facilitating this process of self-discovery, and once I designed a project, I simply got out of the way and let the magic unfold.
The tragic losses to suicide left our community wondering what was going on with youth in Napa, and at the same time the conversation about the blossoming youth mental health crisis was happening at a national level. I knew the painful reality of being a teenager because I struggled with depression and suicide ideation throughout my teen years. I felt called to help at a higher level.
Because I had no idea what it feels like to be a teenager today, I went directly to the young people I was working with and asked them. And wow, did they answer. I learned that a big percentage of our youth were struggling with crippling anxiety, debilitating depression, unhealed trauma and a plethora of unhealthy coping mechanisms. This prompted me to dive deeper and ask more young people what was going on. Within a year I gave up my successful design business and started Teens Connect.
Jeni Olsen – Nic Meerholz, Sea Timber Media Photo
“You Matter” heart Teens shared chalked messages of hope last September for Suicide Prevention Awareness Month – David Schloss, Inventive Filming Photo
Since then I’ve devoted my life to understanding what our teens are going through, co-creating safe spaces and people with whom our young people could connect and working with Mentis to build a continuum of programs that support youth mental health. Merging with Mentis and starting a Prevention Division gave me a bigger platform from which to run my programs as well as a team of incredible mental health therapists who specialize in working with youth. Together our team has had a positive impact on more than 12,000 youth in Napa County. And an unintended positive benefit of this work is that I am healing my inner teen. I’m designing programs that I needed back then.
There is national consensus that our country is experiencing a youth mental health crisis. The pandemic has been an exacerbating factor, but even before COVID in 2019 more than one in three U.S. high school students reported they had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the prior year, a 40% increase from a decade earlier, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over the past two years the U.S. surgeon general has issued several warnings about the youth mental health crisis. This data mirrors what our local teenagers are feeling. The 2021-2022 California Healthy Kids Survey shows that 40% of Napa County high school students reported that they felt chronically sad or hopeless in the prior year, and that 17.5% of Napa County high school students had seriously considered attempting suicide. The numbers are much higher among our LGBTQ+ students.
Our programs at Mentis offer a unique and comprehensive approach to mental health care that utilizes both professional and peer-based support to empower youth to reduce stigma around mental health, promote help-seeking behaviors for themselves and their peers, learn tools for resilience and seek treatment when necessary. We have scaled our solution by building strong partnerships with our Napa County schools to address the youth mental health crisis. Now more
than ever, mental health services that build resilience, address trauma, and help students manage their anxiety and depression are critical to young people’s ability to cope and thrive.
In the coming months I look forward to sharing my thoughts and opinions about how to have authentic conversations with youth, the importance of focusing on character rather than achievement and how we can all advocate for teens when they need professional mental health support. You’ll hear from local youth about what they need and want from adults to feel safe and supported, as well as their hopes and dreams for the present and the future. I’ll infuse stories of my experience as a teen and will share about the joy and heartbreak of raising teens. Spoiler alert: I have successfully launched two adults into the world. It can be done!
If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. If you or someone you love needs mental health or wellness support, please visit our Mentis Youth Resource Database. As the founder of Teens Connect and director of Mentis’ Prevention Division, Jeni Olsen manages youth wellness programs through a mental health lens together with local teenagers and her Prevention team. As a director, speaker and writer, Olsen is often sought out for her in-depth expertise around teens and her forward-thinking, collaborative approach to supporting youth and their complex needs.
People holding the round sign 2022-2023 Mentis Teen Council – Nyah McWilliams’ Photo