MONTCLAIR, NJ - What do young people have on their minds today? Are the pressures of life overwhelming them? The Montclair Film Festival (MFF) and Partners for Health presented the works of local young filmmakers on Wednesday evening at the Audible Lounge followed by a discussion with experts on the various ways to assist the youth in coping with today's pressures.

The panel discussion was moderated by John Mooney, Founding Editor and Education Writer for NJ Spotlight, on what young people have on their minds today.

The four films chosen were Individuality, Hue, I’m Not Okay, and Listen. The excerpts brought several audience members to tears, as all movies in one way or another, depicted the struggles teens often face alone, their need for inclusiveness, the inner voices telling them they are just not good enough, and the potentially damaging results of the often unrecognized struggle. The impressive filmmakers received a resounding round of applause.

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The focus of the discussion was supporting youth, which is not always a straightforward endeavor, especially if parents and educators do not have a trained eye to recognize anxiety and depression. These short films shared a glimpse of some of the hopes, concerns, and anxieties that young teens experience but may not always be apparent to those around them. The discussion focused on how to bring awareness to the issues, create a network of families, students, and professionals, and essentially provide a better safety net for our youth.

Tap into Montclair spoke to one of the panelists, Dr. Sonja Gray, MD. She stated that she was invited to be on the panel to give an overview of what she is seeing in the community in general, as far as depression and isolation. Gray said, “We are going to communicate what the district has done to help kids in need.” She added that the beautiful films had impressed her.

Andrew Evangelista, Student Assistance Counselor at the Montclair Public Schools, spoke a bit on the changing landscape over the years referencing Columbine and 911, saying society has changed a lot over the past 15 years. 

Evangelista said, “There are a lot more pressures on them [youth], a lot more opportunities. They’re trying to catch up on the apps their friends are using. There’s more drugs and alcohol. More testing...” He also spoke on the topic of social media and its impact.

Dr. Gray said, “Our youth has access to so much information and they feel like they need to master it all.”  Referencing the technology aspect, Gray said parents and adults in general are frequently way behind. This is translating into a lot of generalized anxiety and depression, conditions that need to be understood and differentiated form hormones or any other issues common for that age group.

Mooney asked if the changes in terms of testing standards have a role in the academic pressures in general. Gray said, “The academic pressures are much greater. Students feel a lot of pressure to perform for the teachers they care for, for school ratings... Their stress is bigger than just making mom and dad happy.”

Betty Strauss, District head nurse answered the question of whether teens can differentiate between a medical conditions and an anxiety attack. She said the three things that are different than 15 years ago are anxiety, sleep deprivation (which she attributed to overuse of social media), and a general lack of resilience. She noted these as trends manifesting in headaches, stomachaches, malaise, depression and more.  

She said, “The only way to distinguish is to know the students and to see the pattern and differentiate between something like an asthma attack and an anxiety attack.” Strauss referenced markers that may be unclear, and at times a doctor will need to be consulted to make sure something respiratory, for example, is not going on. She did not however indicate that students are not always able to make that distinction on their own.

Linda Mithaug, Director of Pupil Services, said a mental health task force was put together a couple years ago with doctors, therapists, police officers and more, to brainstorm about creating a better safety net. They identified ways to strengthen policies to manage students in crisis, and with substance abuse issues, through a more systemic approach.

This resulted in the school board starting a youth counseling program at the high school that Partners for Health provided a grant to support. She indicated they are ready to move forward with some of the services. She said, “Not only would there be a designated hub or main space, there would also be a district level mental health coordinator that would work to strengthen policies and staff … to make sure there is a better continuum of services, that we are all following the same procedures, and linking people together.”

Dr. Gray spoke of how important early identification of anxiety and depression is, in order to prevent children from being hospitalized as a result of an untreated condition.

Providing training for families, staff and teachers, was identified as being the primary means to achieve better results, provide support, and promote mental health among our youth.

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