‘Everyone is going through their own battles’

Friendship Circle aims to help teen mental health with UMatter program

By LARRY YUDELSON – New Jersey Jewish News


A new program led by Chabad rabbis aims to help teens support their peers through mental health crises.

Dubbed “UMatter” — because the key message it hopes to send to kids is that their lives are important — the program has received a $50,000 grant from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, contingent on Chabad’s raising matching funds. It is being run by Friendship Circle New Jersey, in conjunction with the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris.

UMatter grew out of Friendship Circle’s work with teens, from middle through high school. With 800 to 1000 teen volunteers who work with special needs children, the Livingston-based Friendship Circle claims to be “the largest group in the area in engaging teens,” according to Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, Friendship Circle’s founder and CEO.

Jessie Sherman of Livingston, an 11th grader at Livingston High School, has been a Friendship Circle volunteer for six years. Now she is active in UMatter programming as well. “It’s more focused on connecting with our own fellow teens and on bettering yourself,” she said.

Jessie is co-president of a Friendship Circle club at Livingston High, as well as of a mental health club called “Livingston Minds Matter.”

“We just had the guest speaker from the first UMatter meeting come in,” she said.

That speaker was Tracy Klingener, director of suicide prevention services at the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris, who spoke at the first UMatter program back in October on recognizing the signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression — and how to help.

“Everyone is going through their own battles, but it’s not always talked about,” Jesse summarized. “It made me realize I should check in on others more often, whether I know them or not. Just the fact that people know other people care about them is impactful.”

Rabbi Grossbaum said that while he has always been mindful of the challenges that emotional and mental health and social issues pose to Friendship Circle volunteers and other teens, “We decided we needed to do something more concrete to combat these challenges.”

Rabbi Yisroel Rosenblum is leading the UMatter program. He has been certified in SafeTalk, a four-hour training by the LivingWorks anti-suicide organization, in how to respond to people who are undergoing mental health challenges and struggling with suicide. It is designed to increase participants’ ability to identify people who are having thoughts of suicide, and confidently engage with them and ask them about suicide.

Rabbi Rosenblum has provided the training to teens, as well as to police officers and other first responders. He said that focusing on helping teens cope with mental health is a natural progression from his work with Friendship Circle. “Being part of Friendship Circle has meant dealing with teens all the time,” he said.

“During the course of the pandemic the need was quite evident. It has taken its toll on everybody and the teens as well. We felt it was a perfect time to pivot and really help address the mental health challenges teens are facing.

“The goal of UMatter is to empower the teenagers. Number one is for them to recognize that they matter. Every single person has a purpose to fulfill in this world.

“The number two goal is for them to able to recognize the signs of individual who are struggling, and to be able to share with their peers that there is strength in reaching out and seeking help. Teens are really fascinated to learn that it’s not hard to reach out to somebody when you see they’re struggling and try to help them.”

Rabbi Rosenblum leads a UMatter program for teens.

UMatter has been hosting a monthly meeting featuring “an inspirational speaker who can share their experience” with a particular topic in mental health. Recent sessions have looked at building resilience and on hope. It is also running a teen-led discussion group, with a mental health professional taking part.

Down the road, Rabbi Rosenblum hopes that UMatter teens will organize a UMatter week of mental health awareness at their schools. While Friendship Circle is for Jews, UMatter is open to the general community, Rabbi Rosenblum said.

Rabbi Grossbaum said that UMatter is guided by the teachings of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. “There is so much that the rebbe taught about positive thinking,” he said.

Michael Schmidt, executive director and CEO of the Healthcare Foundation, said in a statement that his organization’s grant to UMatter reflects its concern “with the dramatic rise of mental health concerns in youth today.”

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