Local nonprofit, Teens Connect, has made a name for itself with teens, parents, school administrators, county organizations, other nonprofits, and donors alike. With a focus on mental health, the organization has been able to connect with and meet the needs of Napa County teens with on and off campus programming that appears to be on point.

Teens Connect Founder and Executive Director, Jeni Olsen, explained that the organization provides a safe space for open conversation, allowing her and her team to get honest insights into the stresses, triggers, and anxieties plaguing teens today. From there, she says, they design programs that deliver thoughtful responses and impactful solutions.

Inspired by the tragic loss of two Napa teenagers to suicide in 2016, Teens Connect was founded to meet the unique mental health needs of our youth. Olsen pointed out that suicide is now the second leading cause of death for adolescents ages 15-19. Half of all mental health problems begin by age 14 but only one-third of diagnosed children and teens receive treatment.

In Napa County, teens are struggling with the impacts of acute trauma caused by the loss of their friends to suicide and addiction, violence in their own schools and across the country, and recent natural disasters, as well as chronic issues including the intense pressure they feel to achieve perfection and success, and the effects of social media. The 2017-2018 California Healthy Kids Survey reveals that 14% of Napa Valley teens* have seriously considered suicide. Just as with adults, mental health issues don’t discriminate. Teens of all races, socioeconomic backgrounds, academic levels, sexual orientation, gender orientation, athletic ability, perceived popularity, and so on, are affected.

Teens Connect has programming both inside and outside of our local schools. In partnership with Mentis, another nonprofit dedicated to emotional health and wellbeing, and our local school districts, the nonprofits were able to connect teens to free group and individual therapy on 10 middle and high school campuses in Napa, American Canyon and St. Helena. Mentis and Teens Connect work together towards their shared goal of providing local teens a full continuum of school-based mental health and wellness services.

Programs outside of school include Youth Mental Health First Aid trainings, art programs, yoga workshops, opportunities to volunteer locally and globally, and participation in civic engagement. Olsen said that everything works together to provide teens with self-esteem-building and stress-releasing creative outlets; tools for self-care; a network of understanding and knowledgeable contemporaries, adults, and trained mental health professionals; and opportunities to form positive self-identities, express their voices, experience empowerment, and create a meaningful social impact on their communities and the world.

Perhaps the largest impact these teens make might be on one another. Olsen noted that it’s friends who are often on the “front lines” of another teen’s mental health challenge. By giving them the tools to not only help themselves, but each other, the executive director said she feels they are truly empowered. Teens Connect has a 17-person teen council, which includes high school students from 6 of the high schools in Napa County. Each member has been trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid – a program where teens learn how to support their friends and peers in crisis; run on-campus clubs that reduce the stigma surrounding mental health; and help raise awareness of and refer peers to professional services. They also help facilitate Teens Connect’s on-campus Wellness Cafes and inform all of the organization’s programming, ensuring that everything is teen-approved.

Olsen said that the feedback from the students has been overwhelmingly positive. One powerful testimony that she shared belongs to a high school student named Makenzie who told Olsen, “I just want to thank you for giving me the tools to save lives and for making me feel approachable to others. Today I may have saved my little cousin’s life.” In a survey of over 400 middle and high school students in the 2018/2019 school year, Olsen stated that 76% of them reported learning new coping skills as well as knowledge of resources for assistance when they are struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression. Comments included “I learned I’m never truly alone” and “I learned that there are people who actually want to help.”

Although only in its third year, Teens Connect has accomplished a lot and continues to move at a fast pace. Projects on the horizon include implementing a new Youth Resilience curriculum within middle schools. This will be led by Jessica Zepeda, Teens Connect’s new Program Director. The program uses a multisensory learning approach to teach students of all learning types how to access the skills of resilience, enabling them to thrive both in school and life.

Additionally, Teens Connect and Mentis, together with partners across Napa County, are designing a comprehensive, online Teen Resource Database. This will enable teens and their parents to quickly and easily access information on activities, support, and programs in Napa County.

Along with donors and supporters, Olsen shared gratitude for her boards of directors and advisors for Teens Connect’s success. The former includes Rob Weiss, Executive Director of Mentis; Joelle Gallagher, Executive Director of First 5 Napa County; Regina Weinstein, Partner and Director of Marketing at Honig Winery; Desi Capaz, Realtor; Melanie Carrico, Owner of MDM Bookkeeping; and Lisa Stockon, Owner of 29 Marketing Studio. The advisory board is made up of humanitarians, activists, vintners, public servants, educators, and business minds.

Olsen shared that just as the loss of those two young lives in 2016 had a ripple effect throughout our community, the same is true for a single life saved, a life improved, a life empowered. She said she is inspired by the thought that every life that is enhanced – or saved – by these programs is a light that will shine for others, raising them up, so they raise the next, and the next. In her eyes, this is exactly what our community, and the world, needs right now. For more information, please visit www.teensconnectnapa.org.

*9th and 11th graders surveyed from Napa Valley Unified School District, St Helena Unified School District and Calistoga Joint Unified School District

By Lisa Stockon, Teens Connect board secretary

St Helena Living, August 2019