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Local groups team up to teach teens about mental health

West Bloomfield Beacon - 8/25/2017

WALLED LAKE/WEST BLOOMFIELD - High school can be a hard time for anyone, and sometimes mental health takes a back seat, especially during the school year.

Friendship Circle's UMatter program has been around for two years, helping teens deal with social anxiety and isolation.

The West Bloomfield-based nonprofit will be expanding its program to work with students at local high schools during the 2017-18 school year.

Friendship Circle has teamed up with the Andrew Kukes Foundation for Social Anxiety to expand the program to host events in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District and the West Bloomfield School District. AKFSA has provided the program with a $250,000 grant to use over five years.

The UMatter program helps teens through events and programming, all with the message that everyone truly matters. In 2016, UMatter trained more than 300 individuals in suicide prevention and hosted a variety of events throughout the year that reached out to a few thousand people.

"We highlight that everybody matters," said Yarden Blumstein, director of teen engagement at Friendship Circle. "Every person does matter. They shouldn't think otherwise."

"UMatter weeks" are hosted at local schools. For the 2017-18 school year, all three high schools in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District will be taking part in the program. West Bloomfield High School will also host a UMatter Week.

"During UMatter weeks in high schools, we create an atmosphere of living life on life's terms," said Blumstein. "We have had tremendous success."

AKFSA is a West Bloomfield-based nonprofit that helps educate people about social anxiety, its causes and how to deal with it. The nonprofit was founded after its namesake, Andrew Kukes, committed suicide as a result of extreme social anxiety.

"I think anything that will bring the mental health discussion to the table is helpful," said AKFSA Director and President Jeff Kukes. "It's something I don't think is discussed too much in high school. Our mission is to get people educated about social anxiety. I think this program will help to do that, especially for the people who need it."

Kukes said he wanted to work with the UMatter program because during its UMatter weeks it hosts SafeTalks, a type of suicide prevention training that educates teens about mental health.

"We find that social anxiety is prevalent and begins to manifest itself in kids in high schools," said Kukes. "We can help people there, and it will make a difference."

During UMatter weeks, the group sponsors teacher TEDTalks, where teachers talk to their students on a personal level about their experiences, and hosts essay contests, hallway decoration contests and suicide prevention training sessions.

"It's really important that young people in our high schools really start to value themselves in a way that I'm seeing them not value themselves," said Sophia Lafayette, assistant principal at Walled Lake Northern High School. "(UMatter) is a great concept to promote with young people."

Lafayette said that though schools host many programs to get students involved, she is happy to see one that asks students to be more introspective and focus attention on their mental health.

"We haven't necessarily had something with this kind of take - where you look within yourself and say, 'I'm important. I have value. I matter,'" she said. "This goes a little deeper."

Dates for the programs haven't been set. UMatter Week will take place in November.


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