Friendship Circle addresses teen mental health crisis
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Friendship Circle addresses teen mental health crisis

Panel discussion and new building offer direct response to alarming CDC data about teens

Panelists describe the current state of teens during the February 26 program. Photo by Adam Reinherz
Panelists describe the current state of teens during the February 26 program. Photo by Adam Reinherz

A panel of four teens told parents, therapists and friends about the importance of listening, support and mental health promotion at a program hosted by Friendship Circle on Feb. 26.

Ursula Brown, Liam Friedlander, Abbie Peigh and Bracha Shkedi — all students at local high schools — described the challenges of adolescence.

“A lot of adults don't realize how prevalent mental health struggles really are,” Brown said. “I know a lot of my friends’ parents don't really accept that their child could be going through something like this.”

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supports Brown’s claims.

Findings from 2011-2021 indicate teens are experiencing record increases in mental health issues, experiences with violence, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

In 2011, 29% of high school students felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row that they stopped doing their usual activities; by 2021, the number jumped to 42%.

Six percent of students missed school because of related fears in 2011; 10 years late, that number grew to 9%.

In 2011, 16% of students seriously considered attempting suicide; by 2021, the number rose to 22%.

Finding after finding within the CDC’s report illustrate “devastating” truths, Rivkee Rudolph, director of Friendship Circle, told the Chronicle. Hosting the panel enabled teens to voice this data and tell their peers, “Hey, we’re going through this, too.”

The community has a “role to play” when it comes to teen mental health, Friedlander said. “If the community is more open to talking about mental health, then individuals will also start to become more open to talking about mental health.”

A large part of that “is breaking down the stigma,” Brown said. “Your community shouldn't judge you for something you're going through even if they don't understand it.”

Many adults don’t comprehend the experiences of children, the panelists said.

Today’s teens were born post-2004. They’ve grown up in a world where iPhones, memes and virtual communities are often more familiar than neighbors. The “inner turmoil” spurred by having to select a college, major and profession compound with “the mess of climate change” and society’s relentless quest for new technology, Brown said. “All of this chaos and changing in a changing world is very hard for our generation to cope with.”

Sarah Pesi, a policy associate at the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, said adults can help: “The No. 1 thing is to listen and partner with youth; they're the experts of their own experience.”

The community must implement more “programs and policies that have youth input,” she added.

Leaders of the Friendship Circle believe the organization can serve that role.

Following the panel presentation, participants heard about The Beacon, a soon-to-be-opened community space for addressing mental health and wellness before a crisis. The facility, which will be run by Friendship Circle, will be located next to the organization’s home on Murray Avenue.

Kaitlin Hens-Greco, clinical director of The Beacon, said the building will be “an intentional environment for teens to address their mental health through meaningful programming, mindfulness and support from peers and trained professionals.”

Two floors, each about 2,000 square feet, will create a setting for teens that is both “restorative and calming,” she said. The safe space and programming will not only “normalize our teens’ experiences, but offer teens strategies that they can use in their daily lives to help support themselves.”

The Beacon is slated to open for daily after-school use this spring.

Rabbi Mordy Rudolph, the Friendship Circle’s executive director, said the organization recognized the need for physical expansion about five years ago.

Initially, the thought was to use the new building for adult programming. But as the organization grew, and increased its connections with local teens, a pressing need was noticed.

“Teens are struggling today,” Rudolph said.

The Friendship Circle faced a moment akin to a classic question of Jewish law, Rudolph said. If someone has just one candle, and it’s both Friday night and Chanukah, what should the person do — light the candle for Chanukah or for Shabbat?

The answer is to light the candle for Shabbat.

“It’s important to have shalom bayit (peace in the home) before spreading light into the world,” he said. That mindset became the organization’s “underlying philosophy” during the past several years. “If we’re going to light up the world and things aren’t quite in order at home, then it just doesn’t work.”

At the end of the program, teens visited tables staffed by representatives of UpStreet, Jewish Healthcare Foundation and Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania, where they could pick up promotional materials describing available services.

Friendship Circle staffer Ayala Rosenthal, who organized the program, said the alignment of organizations — like the earlier panel discussion — represents a direct response to the CDC’s alarming data.

“All of us are serving a similar purpose at the end of the day,” she said. “I think it's important for all of us to be working together.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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