First Aid for Teen Mental Health Infused with Jewish Values

January 31, 2020

While you might expect teens to be moody, would you know when mood swings, irritability or fears signal something far more serious? Once dismissed as growing pains, problems such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders affect significantly more teenagers than in previous generations. About 20% of American teens live with a mental health condition, reports the National Institute of Mental Health. Half of all mental illnesses begin by age 14 and 75% begin by the mid-20s. Tragically, the suicide rate for 18- to 19-year-olds climbed 56% from 2008 to 2017. As teen mental health issues become more prevalent, the need for education grows. 

That’s why 4Front, a teen-focused initiative directed by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore and supported by The Associated, Jim Joseph Foundation and the Meyerhoff Charitable Funds, and Jewish Community Services are collaborating to provide the nationally-recognized Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) program in Baltimore. Just like certified medical first aid or CPR, people trained in YMHFA are equipped to help youth experiencing a mental health crisis until professional help can be arranged.  

“The goal is to give non-clinicians the skills to recognize, stabilize and find help for teens experiencing a mental health crisis, “says Howard Reznick, MSW, LCSW-C, manager, prevention education services at Jewish Community Services. “They gain skills to differentiate between teen drama and more serious matters.”  

Designed for teachers, coaches, caregivers, school staff, and family members, the eight-hour course defines mental health challenges for youth, reviews adolescent development, and teaches a five-step action plan to intervene and help young people in crisis and non-crisis situations. Topics include anxiety, depression, substance use, disruptive behaviors, eating disorders and disorders in which psychosis may occur. 

While the original program, developed in Australia, has been successful worldwide, Baltimore joins nine other communities in the U.S. in adding an enriched component developed expressly for Jewish teens. With funding from The Jim Joseph Foundation (a founding funder of 4Front), the YMHFA model expanded content to reflect cultural and religious elements within the Jewish community and infuse learning about mental health with Jewish values. 

“Scenarios have been adjusted to reflect teens’ Jewish identity. The curriculum mirrors situations youth professionals see when working with teens in synagogues, schools, and youth groups,” says Rabbi Dena Shaffer, executive director, 4Front. 

Participants also delve into Jewish text. “We want our teens to know Judaism has something to say about what they may be feeling,” says Shaffer. “Jewish learning is holistic and portable – we can apply learning to many situations.” 

The program launched with advanced coursework for key JCS professionals, including Reznick and his colleague Jennifer Rudo, JCS teen engagement coordinator, who are now certified YMHFA instructors. They are equipped to train other adults working or volunteering in schools, synagogues, youth groups, sports leagues, and other youth-serving organizations. These trainings will be coordinated by the 4Front professional team.

“We approach the work with chesed (compassion) as we show up for our kids and recognize what they are going through,” says Reznick. “If we save one person, we save the universe.” 
Adds Shaffer: “The more people who are trained in this important work, the better a system and environment we create for our teens.” 

How to Schedule a Youth Mental Health First Aid Training
The eight-hour Youth Mental Health First Aid training program is available to schools, camps and other organizations across the Jewish community and the Baltimore community at large. Interested organizations and individuals should contact Rabbi Dena Shaffer at 410.500.5983 or email

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