The Friendship Circle recently hosted a UMatter event about mental health challenges facing teenagers. The speakers at the event were, from left to right, Ann Arbor Skyline senior Gracie Greenberg, former Detroit Lions player Trevor Bates, HAVEN of Oakland County volunteer Kelly Erickson, and Eastern Michigan University junior Hannah Palmer.

The Friendship Circle recently hosted a UMatter event about mental health challenges facing teenagers. The speakers at the event were, from left to right, Ann Arbor Skyline senior Gracie Greenberg, former Detroit Lions player Trevor Bates, HAVEN of Oakland County volunteer Kelly Erickson, and Eastern Michigan University junior Hannah Palmer.

Photo provided by Megan Bonelli


Teen mental health takes center stage

By: Mark Vest | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published April 7, 2021

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WEST BLOOMFIELD — For more than two decades, the Friendship Circle has been a source of support for metro Detroit residents.

The nonprofit organization is perhaps best known for offering programs for individuals with special needs.

However, Friendship Circle’s impact reaches even further, as evidenced by its UMatter program, which was launched more than five years ago.

The program focuses on empowering teens to “shatter” the stigmas surrounding mental health challenges and suicide.

The UMatter program offers ongoing support groups, as well as training for suicide prevention. Its annual event, “One Thing I Wish You Knew,” features various speakers who share personal stories.

“Our UMatter program is something that came about through our teen division,” Friendship Circle co-founder Bassie Shemtov said. “As Friendship Circle started, we started with the Friendship House division for people struggling with addiction and substance abuse, social anxiety, other kinds of anxieties. From there, we started our fall special needs division, which brought in the hundreds of teen volunteers.”

For Shemtov, being around teen volunteers can help provide insight as to the issues they go through in their lives.

“That’s what kind of opened up our eyes to the lack of security that our teens were found to have,” she said. “When they are missing the deep knowledge, understanding, that they are here in this world for a purpose, there’s actually a reason why they are here existing, there could be an easy way of real, kind of brought-on depression and a feeling of emptiness. And that’s how UMatter was created, kind of a hybrid of the Friendship House programming and our teen volunteer programming, to bring awareness to our teenagers that ‘you matter.’”

Melanie Schwartz is a licensed psychologist and the owner of Viewpoint Psychology and Wellness, which has offices in West Bloomfield and Commerce Township.

She has taken notice of the mental state of teenagers, and she thinks it has deteriorated since 2020.

“Unfortunately, the mental health challenges and suicide rates over the past year have sky-rocketed due to the pandemic and the consequences it has created for teens,” Schwartz wrote via email. “There was already a significant percentage of teens suffering with mental health issues prior to the pandemic. However, the trauma of the past year and losses that the kids have experienced (loss of school, loss of plans, loss of socialization, loss of loved ones, etc.) has made it almost impossible to go unscathed and without some mental health issue.”

Mixing things like family and social issues, taking on too many extracurricular activities, and pressures to be successful with the pandemic are things Schwartz considers to be a “recipe for mental health issues.”

The pressure to be successful has also gotten Shemtov’s attention, and she would like for teenagers to consider things from a different perspective than the norm.

“It’s really not about the grades that you are getting,” she said. “It’s really not about the social circle or lack of that you have, or don’t have. It’s really (that) you, as your soul, that you exist in this world matters. Because you are here, you’re a vital piece of the puzzle as the bigger picture, the way God created it. It’s really not about how successful you are.”

Having teens volunteer with the Friendship Circle has helped Shemtov realize what can help add fulfillment to their lives.

“As we started having our teen volunteers, we found out how needed it was for them to volunteer,” she said. “All of a sudden, we realized ... it fills in the need that the teens of today’s day and age, especially with those crazy expectations and peer pressure, have. When they realized that they were needed for a child with special needs, and then they were able to connect with the short, incredible goal of the individual with special needs, the great fulfillment and that feeling of acceptance and non-judgemental, real, unconditional love to the teen, it’s kind of like backwards of what we thought.”

Shemtov elaborated on what giving to others can do for teens.

“Once we are infusing this message to our teens, that they are so important just for being here, and that they have a mission to fulfill, it kind of goes back to their volunteering,” she said. “Yes, when we give back, when we make a difference, when we are here for others, when we are here in this world to make this world a beautiful place, that’s when we actually are true to ourselves.”

Schwartz thinks it is important for teenagers, as well as others, to find purpose in their lives.

She thinks one way of accomplishing that is to have a better balance between school, fun and socialization.

As things stand, Schwartz is of the opinion that there is too much work and not enough fun and socialization for students.

“The biggest complaint that most of my teen clients have is the amount of homework that they have,” she wrote. “They often feel overwhelmed and stressed, giving them limited time to balance with relaxation. Add in the stresses of the pandemic ... this magnifies the already stressful lives that these kids have.”

Shemtov would like for teenagers to not worry so much about being cool, smart or successful, and instead realize that they have unique gifts and talents, with missions to fulfill that only they can accomplish.

“If we could give that message, we will have many healthy teens that will be able to overcome the daily challenges and struggles that come all of our ways,” she said.

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