Mental health is important for everyone, but it’s especially important to spotlight teenagers and mental health. For today’s post, I was able to talk with Monica Utley, the Executive Director of Tilly’s Life Center. Located in Irvine, California, Tilly’s Life Center teaches life skills to teenagers that build confidence, inspire compassion, and encourages adolescents to pursue their dreams. Thank you to Monica for taking the time to answer my questions!
Thank you for taking the time to chat with me! Before we get into your work, a little background – what is Tilly’s Life Center, and what type of work do you do?
Tilly’s Life Center (TLC) is a nonprofit educational program that helps teens overcome the serious obstacles they are met with on a daily basis. Our proactive approach uses experiential learning, journal writing, open discussion, and other activities to guide teens in effectively coping with crisis, adopting healthy habits, and reaching their full potential. The program is available as a high school course via virtual or in-person, an after-school program, or a series of workshops. Additionally, TLC has launched an Educator Certification initiative to train and license educators to implement our curriculum in their classrooms. Topics reflect what teens experience in their lives, such as stress management, bullying, body-image, coping mechanisms, and more. I am currently serving as Executive Director for Tilly’s Life Center (TLC) to build awareness for their mission and help grow the organization.
Mental health is important for people of all ages, but there is a clear need for mental health awareness and education with teens. What are the best ways to reach teens about mental health?
Honestly, the best way to make sure every adolescent develops the EQ skills they need to transition successfully into adulthood is by making Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) a mandatory part of health or it’s own SEL curriculum. Learning how to care for your mental wellbeing is not a one-off workshop or a video, it is a lifelong practice. Many schools have already started to implement SEL content into their curriculum. We believe once the framework around mental wellness is adopted nation/world-wide, we will start to see a significant shift in mental wellness among youth. Which in turn makes society as a whole, a whole lot better.
We’ve learned that social media can have a negative impact on teens mental health, but we also live in this digital world. How does mental health coexist with teens in the digital age?
Every generation has its challenges; the digital age is no different. In TLC we work with teens to develop healthy behaviors and boundaries around social media use. We do this by bringing awareness to the consequences of destructive behaviors and also by displaying how to use digital platforms to their benefit. A big focus of our curriculum is building self esteem and teaching effective communication skills. When a teen has self-worth and is able to effectively communicate, they organically make better decisions.
Are there differences between different generations of teens when it comes to how they approach mental health?
There has definitely been a shift around the mental health narrative. Starting in the late 90’s there was a boom in drug dependence, suicide and other mental health challenges. Our perception of mental health challenges began to shift at this time. Prior to this time speaking about or having a mental health challenge was taboo. People that were experiencing mental health challenges were looked at as weak, defected or a bad person. Fortunately, more people are beginning to understand that experiencing a mental health challenge is equivalent to experiencing a physical challenge. Finally the archaic stigma around mental health is breaking down and being replaced with understanding and compassion. In regard to different generations of teens, according to the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America 2020,” the potential consequences of the persistent stress and trauma created by the pandemic are particularly serious for the Gen Z teens (ages 13-17) and Gen Z adults (ages 18-23) more so than any other generation. Although the stigma around mental health has shifted, it is this generation that is experiencing unprecedented, elevated stress and symptoms of anxiety and depression.
How does TLC work to help teens manage their mental health?
At TLC, our goal is to help our students create positivity within themselves so they can attract positive people and circumstances to their lives. TLC takes a proactive and preventive approach to the growing social and emotional issues affecting teens today. Our “I Am Me” curriculum helps teens develop confidence, compassion, motivation and the ability to make difficult decisions when teens need it most.
In our lesson called “I Am Grateful,” for example, we introduce teens to the basics of adopting practices of gratitude into their lives. Gratitude is a theme that continues throughout our curriculum. By implementing practices of appreciation in topics like I am Kind, I Am Giving & I Am Making a Difference, students start to understand just how gratitude, giving, giving back, etc. can positively impact their lives.
I truly believe that what we are creating at Tilly’s Life Center is groundbreaking. It’s a movement to change our educational system. We aim to see SEL as a required curriculum in ALL high schools across the country. Teens are in desperate need of tools to help them move through adversity, meet life’s challenges and truly thrive. It is our duty as educators to embed these lessons in their educational environments – even about many other core subjects! We must focus on their emotional well-being first, and now.
What is one thing you wish you could tell teenagers who are facing mental health challenges?
That just because they are experiencing a mental health challenge, it does not make them abnormal or flawed. The truth is, almost every person at sometime in their lives will experience a mental health challenge. It is part of the human experience. It is imperative that they understand that there is help and that most of the time what they are experiencing is a temporary situation. Oftentimes adolescents cannot conceptualize that a challenge like anxiety or depression will ever change or get better – they feel stuck and hopeless. By getting the support they need, teens begin to understand that there are solutions, tools and techniques to help and that restoring mental wellness is possible.