Twin Cities nonprofits team up to provide mental health support to young women

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The pandemic has created a mental health crisis as young people grapple with uncertainty, isolation, loss and the stresses of growing up. In the fall of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in children’s mental health.

Over the last year, two Twin Cities nonprofits have teamed up to help increase mental health support for middle and high school girls.

“I’ve noticed there’s a lot of anxiety,” said Nicole Etta, the program manager for Girls Taking Action. “There’s always that unknown fear of what’s going to happen and there’s so much pressure on the girls these days, whether it’s perfectionism or constantly comparing themselves.”

Girls Taking Action empowers young women to find their purpose. The organization meets weekly with 300 girls at schools across the Twin Cities and provides mentorship, college planning, field trips to connect with female industry leaders and tools to balance school and life.

Etta has noticed how social media and phone use has affected teenage girls.

“It’s like ‘oh my phone is ringing, I gotta go answer it’ and then they come back upset,” she described. “Or, they’re scrolling on social media and they see a comment and it’s ruined the whole day. There’s even been times in session where we’re talking, we’re having a good sessions, and then someone sees something bad has been posted about them on social media and it just changed the whole direction of our whole session.”

The isolation of the pandemic has also exacerbated mental health problems, according to Girls Taking Action Founder Dr. Verna Cornelia Price.

“When the pandemic hit it actually created this dynamic where the girls were now alone,” she said. “Girls then become connected to their friends through the computer and then they started exploring other things, like social media, then they started becoming more addicted to it, then it leads to this dynamic where girls are not getting any sleep, they’re now more anxious than ever before, they see more.”

She added, “We have seen a huge, drastic change in our girls and their need for mental health, serious mental health help.”

Dr. Cornelia Price decided during the past school year to integrate additional mental health supports for the students they work with. GTA hired a health and wellness specialist and brought in a breathing expert to help teach the teenagers mindfulness practices.

“Our girls were literally walking around holding their breath,” said Dr. Cornelia Price. “You imagine being a teacher with an 8th grader like this all the time and then the moment you say something to her, she just falls apart, or she explodes on you, or she’s getting into some little scuttle with the girl next to her.”

Several years ago while establishing a Girls Taking Action program in Guatemala, Dr. Cornelia Price met the co-founder of Minnetonka-based nonprofit Breath Logic, Laurie Ellis-Young.

Ellis-Young conducted a breathing program with the young women participating in the program in Guatemala. Their connection continued when they both returned to the United States. Ellis-Young created a training manual for GTA.

When the toll of the pandemic became apparent, Dr. Cornelia Price decided to incorporate the breathing exercises into the weekly mentoring meetings at six of GTA’s Twin Cities sites. 

“I think to myself, what is something that I can put in place for our girls so they know what to do when they’re having an anxiety attack, when they feel depressed?” said Dr. Cornelia Price. “What can you do? Breathe, just breathe.”

Last week, Ellis-Young also walked the young women through breathing exercises at GTA’s annual tea for their high school participants.

“It is when we can close our eyes and go inside and just feel our breath — because when we are really feeling we aren’t thinking, we aren’t in chaos — we become calm,” said Ellis-Young.

She teaches the teenagers tangible exercises to calm the nervous system and reduce stress.

“To be able to find a sanctuary, or peaceful place inside that they can go to and that they can get grounded, re-centered, feel empowered and then have it happen so quickly that they can go back out and continue with their lives the way Dr. Verna wants them to — feeling their importance, value, power and lovability,” said Ellis-Young.

Both organizations agree one of the advantage of the breathing exercises is that they can be done anywhere, without anyone noticing.  

“They don’t have to make a big deal out of it, they can just quietly, wherever they are, just breathe and that’s been really helpful for our girls,” said Dr. Cornelia Price. “Just breathe in that ‘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 in so we actually integrate the affirmations into the breathing techniques for our girls.”

Girls Taking Action plans to expand this wellness initiative during the upcoming school year. They hope to integrate breath literacy into the weekly meetings at all 20 sites.

“They can use it any time in periods of stress, in periods of anxiety and just when they need to get an uplift to feel like they have more control in their lives,” said Debby Magnuson, a GTA board member and BreathLogic board vice chair. “Things are different now for young people, we’re moving at so much of a faster pace and there are images coming at people from all sides, and then we have the impact of the pandemic. The pandemic just accelerated and exacerbated the stressors of daily life.”

Girls Taking Action mentors are also receiving this training, which they then share with the young women they work with.

“These are tools that we can teach people that they can use throughout their lives and hopefully teach their moms and dads, teach their friends and become role models for others as well,” said Magnuson. “Once one has a good foundation in basic breathing techniques, it is a whole toolkit that you can use to improve your daily life.”

Etta, who is also a lead mentor with GTA, told us she is already seeing a difference from the work they’re doing.

“From October until now, I’ve noticed a lot of the girls have calmed down in terms of behavioral issues, a lot of them have changed their direction of thinking,” she said. “I think it’s great that we are able to show them and teach them how to have these skills to help them with this, or if something else happens later in life they have the skills to get through that as well.”