The pandemic has triggered a mental health crisis as young people grapple with uncertainty, isolation, loss and the pressures of growth. In the fall of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national pediatric mental health emergency.
Over the past year, two nonprofit organizations in the Twin Cities have teamed up to help increase mental health support for middle and high school girls.
“I have noticed that there is a lot of anxiety,” said Nicole Ita, director of Girls Take Action. “There is always an unknown fear of what is going to happen and there is a lot of pressure on girls these days, whether it’s for perfection or constantly comparing themselves.”
The “Girls Take Action” initiative empowers young women to find their purpose. The organization meets weekly with 300 girls in schools across the Twin Cities and offers mentorship, college planning, field trips to network with female industry leaders, and tools for school-life balance.
Etta notes how social media and phone use has affected teenage girls.
She described it, saying, “It’s like ‘Hey my phone is ringing, I have to go and answer it’ and then they come back upset.” “Or they are browsing social media and they see a comment and it’s ruined all day. There have even been times in sessions where we talk, we have good sessions, and then someone sees something bad that has been posted about them on social media and it completely changed the direction of our entire session.”
The isolation of the pandemic has also exacerbated mental health issues, according to Girls Taking Action Dr. Verna Cornelia Price.
“When the pandemic broke out, it actually created this dynamic where the girls were now on their own,” she said. “Girls then get in touch with their friends through the computer and then they start exploring other things, like social media, and then they start getting more addicted to it, and then that leads to this dynamic where the girls don’t sleep, they are now more anxious than ever, they understand They see more.”
She added, “We’ve seen a huge and drastic change in our girls and their need for serious mental health and mental health help.”
Dr. Cornelia Price decided during the last academic year to incorporate additional mental health support for the students they work with. GTA hired a health and wellness professional and brought in a breathing expert to help teach mindfulness practices to teens.
“Our girls were literally walking around holding their breath,” said Dr. Cornelia Price. “You imagine being a teacher with an eighth-grader like this all the time, and then the minute you say something to her, she just collapses, or she explodes at you, or gets into a drunken state with the girl next to her.”
Several years ago while creating Girls Take Action in Guatemala, Dr. Cornelia Price met the co-founder of the Minnetonca-based nonprofit Breath Logic, Laurie Ellis-Young.
Ellis-Young conducted the breathing program with young women participating in the program in Guatemala. Their relationship continued when both returned to the United States. Ellis-Young has created a training guide for GTA.
As the toll of the pandemic became clear, Dr. Cornelia Price decided to incorporate breathing exercises into weekly orientation meetings at six of the GTA’s Twin Cities locations.
“I think to myself, what can I put in place for our girls so that they know what to do when they have an attack of anxiety, when they are feeling depressed?” Dr. Cornelia Price said. “What can you do? Breathe, just breathe.”
Last week, Ellis-Young also walked young women through breathing exercises at the annual GTA tea for high school participants.
“This is the time when we can close our eyes and go inside and just feel our breath—because when we really feel like we’re not thinking, we’re not in a mess—we calm down,” Ellis-Young said.
She teaches teens concrete exercises to calm the nervous system and reduce stress.
“To be able to find a sanctuary, or a quiet place inside that they can go to, that they can root, re-center, feel empowered, and then it happens so quickly that they can go back and move on with their lives the way Dr. Verna wants them to feel — Feeling their importance, their value, their power and their love.”
The two organizations agree that one of the advantages of breathing exercises is that they can be done anywhere, without anyone noticing.
“They don’t have to make a lot of that, they can just quietly, wherever they are, just breathe and that was really good for our girls,” said Dr. Cornelia Price. Just breathe ‘I am valuable, I don’t care what I see on social media, I am valuable, I don’t care what they say, I am valuable.’ “They can breathe that so we can incorporate the affirmations into our girls’ breathing techniques.”
The girls plan to take action to expand this wellness initiative over the next school year. They hope to incorporate breath literacy into weekly meetings at all 20 locations.
said Debbie Magnuson, GTA Board Member and BreathLogic Vice Chairman. “Things are different now for young people, we are moving at a much faster pace and there are images coming in of people from all sides, and then we have the impact of the pandemic. The pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated the stresses of daily life.”
Girls Taking Action mentors also receive this training, which they then share with the young women they work with.
“These are tools that we can teach people to use throughout their lives and hopefully teach their mums and dads, teach their friends and become role models for others as well,” Magnuson said. “Once one gets a good grounding in basic breathing techniques, it is a complete toolkit that you can use to improve your daily life.”
Etta, who is also a GTA lead mentor, told us that she really does see a difference from the work they do.
“From October until now, I’ve noticed that a lot of girls have calmed down in terms of behavioral issues, and a lot of them have changed the direction of their thinking,” she said. “I think it’s great to be able to show them and teach them how to acquire these skills to help them with that, or if something else happens later in life, have the skills to get through that as well.”