Friendship Circle launches The Beacon, supporting teen mental health
‘At Friendship Circle you show up to be a friend to others, but in order to do that you need to be a friend to yourself.’
The pandemic, social media, the political climate and school shootings have all affected the mental health of teens. Add to that the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and you have the makings of a crisis, said Rabbi Mordy Rudolph, the executive director of Friendship Circle of Pittsburgh.
Noting the downturn in teen mental health over at least the last five years, Rudolph said, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation convened a group of community leaders to talk about the crisis and what could be done to help. Friendship Circle was part of that group.
“Because we work with teens, we have seen the shift that’s going on,” he said. “We’ve seen how much their mindsets have changed, and we need to meet them where they are.”
The organization took action. Friendship Circle’s previously underused second floor, at 1926 Murray Ave., is now a community space dedicated to uplifting and supporting teenage well-being and mental health.
“It’s a space for teens to focus on their wellness and feel supported,” said Rivkee Rudolph, Friendship Circle’s director “We will have trained staff on site at all times.”
The Beacon will fall somewhere between the unstructured space provided by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Second Floor and Jewish Family and Community Service’s UpStreet, which offers drop-in consultations with therapists, scheduled therapy appointments, text-based peer support and support groups for teens.
“We live in a city that has wonderful nonprofits that also support teens’ mental health and great hospital systems that support our teens,” Rivkee Rudolph said. “The Beacon is here to be a part of that and to uplift our teens. We want to put an emphasis on self-care, peer support and inclusion.”
The Beacon, she said, is more than a drop-in center; it’s a place where teens can look inward to gain a deeper understanding of their emotions and to feel supported in the process.
Available to all high school-aged teenagers across the Pittsburgh region, whether or not they are Friendship Circle members, the space will be open after school and will offer both unstructured time and programming, Kaitlin Hens-Greco, the clinical director of The Beacon, said.
“All the programming will be centered around how we strengthen our teens’ emotional literacy, their coping strategies and capacities,” she said.
Examples of the activities that will be available include open mic nights, art expression, animal therapy, podcasts, clubs and other programs that teens are interested in and suggest — all with a focus on increasing mindfulness, self-esteem and self-expression, Hens-Greco said.
The space was inspired not only by community stakeholders and design partners, including Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaff + Goettel, Kolano Design, F.J. Busse Co. and Snoezelen., but most importantly, Hens-Greco said, by Friendship Circle teens.
“Everything from the flow and use of the space, lighting, color, the mission statement and choice of furniture — everything has been chosen with the intention of creating a space that’s warm welcoming, safe and inclusive,” she said.
Design elements include a conversation corner, a grounded wall with rotating words to help expand teens’ emotional vocabulary, a tactile wall, a sensory room, a kitchen and a large meeting space resembling a living room.
The purposefulness that went into the design of the center is expected of the teens who use it.
“When they walk in as a member, they need to express their intention for the day,” Rivkee Rudolph said. “They need to stop at our check-in center and practice naming their emotions with the intent of helping them understand and develop emotional literacy.”
The Beacon, Hens-Greco said, will help teens practice positive mental health and to understand that, as humans, we experience a wide range of emotions. If deeper or more formal clinical support is needed, the center will help find the appropriate care.
Ursula Brown, 18, a senior at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School and a co-chair of Friendship Circle’s Teen Wellness Committee, is part of the planning committee for The Beacon. The center, she said, aligns with Friendship Circle’s mission of connecting people with a range of abilities and special needs to others in the community.
“Someone said it perfectly at one of our meetings,” Brown noted. “They said, ‘At Friendship Circle you show up to be a friend to others, but in order to do that you need to be a friend to yourself.’ That was part of the intent behind [The Beacon], fostering that.”
To take advantage of The Beacon, Hens-Greco said, teens will need to become a member through the Friendship Circle website. Once they do that, a member of The Beacon team will reach out and do a more formal intake.
The hope, she said, is to engage with approximately 300 teens in the next year.
The Beacon staff will reach out to teens through Friendship Circle clubs that already exist in several schools including Allderdice, CAPA, Baldwin and Shady Side Academy, Rivkee Rudolph said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a mean of nearly 6,500 teens between ages 12 and 17 visited a hospital with a mental health emergency each week in 2022. That number is down slightly from 2021 but still represents a significant number of teens in crisis. A mean of nearly 4,200 suicide attempts were made each week by the same age group.
“We recognize that there are never going to be enough mental health professionals in the group to meet the crises of today’s teens,” Rivkee Rudolph said. “We hope to train our teens to be able to listen and support each other. We want them to listen differently, ask questions differently and we want to teach them to lean on each other for that.”
In addition to the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, The Beacon is funded by The Allegheny Foundation, Charles M. Morris Charitable Trust, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust, the Fine Foundation, Highmark Foundation, Mary Hillman Jennings Foundations, Jack Buncher Foundation, Philip Chosky Charitable and Educational Foundation, Robert and Mary Weisbrod Foundation and the Smart Foundation, as well as the Mallet and Plaut/Behrmann-Cohen families.
The Beacon will be open after school and in the evening, Monday through Thursday, beginning in September. Teens can become members at tinyurl.com/TheBeaconPGH, and the center will host several events throughout the summer. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at [email protected]