By Teresa Mercer, MSW, LCSW, LCAC, Youth First, Inc.

Millions of people in the United States are affected by substance misuse. In the last few years, death rates from opiate and fentanyl overdoses have been increasing among young people, which is alarming and disturbing.

The simple definition of addiction is this: “Continuing to seek and use substances despite adverse consequences.” Addiction is a disease of the brain because it changes how the brain functions in the areas of reward, stress, and impulse control. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and a variety of other diseases all affect organs and other areas in the body. Much like other major diseases affect organs in the body, addiction affects the brain, the most complex organ in the body.

Families will keep addiction a secret due to the shame connected with it. I can’t think of any person/family that I have known personally that has dealt with a traumatic  disease that wants to keep it hidden. But many people who struggle with addiction will suffer in silence due to stigma.

As a mental health professional, it’s been interesting over the years to watch how people react when they find out someone they know has a family member with cancer compared to a family member addicted to opiates. I have the fortunate experience of proudly working with people who have addictions. In fact, I changed my language a few years ago and started saying I work with people who have addictions instead of saying I work with “addicts.”

People with addictions have names, families, jobs, dreams, hopes, and goals for the future just like everyone else. They also seem to have the best sense of humor, which the world seems to lack of late. They never intended to become addicted, but when you understand how addiction hijacks the brain, it’s easier to understand their actions. 

So how does addiction begin? Some people start using alcohol or marijuana as a teen, which starts out fun and then they can’t stop. Some people quickly move to other harmful substances. The other group of substance users often use to escape physical pain or emotional pain. They find something that makes them feel good or makes them function. Is that not what most of us do?

But I have witnessed the awesome transformation of people in recovery, and I can tell you that addiction takes over the thinking of the person. When they stop, the “old” person returns. Sobriety and recovery work! 

You can make a difference by educating yourself about addiction. Attend a local 12-step meeting and reach out if you know someone that is on his or her recovery journey.


R- Show respect.

E- Have some empathy.

A- Gain more awareness.

C- Have compassion.

H-Offer help and hope.

Everyone needs compassion, some tough love, support, and the knowledge that they are important and worthwhile. They are not any different from the person you know with medical illnesses or any mental health illnesses. I challenge you to adopt a new perspective. You might just save a life!

By Krissy Melhiser, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

Have you ever taken some time to think about your self-worth? Do you tend to build yourself up or tear yourself down with your words or thoughts? Self-esteem is an invisible force that makes up who we are. It can affect many facets of our lives, and it is something that can be ever changing.

Self-esteem is an aspect of our lives that is constantly being influenced. So, let’s focus on what influences can change the way we view ourselves with tips to boost and maintain healthy self-esteem.

Our relationships with others have a powerful influence on our self-esteem, and it is through our relationships that we start to receive and believe messages about ourselves. Young people find it difficult to be themselves at times, because the people in their lives influence what is considered cool, weird, or accepted.

As kids mature, the pressure of comparing themselves to others and the influence of other people’s negative opinions can foster low self-esteem. When you believe that you are incapable, lacking ability, or just not good enough, you reinforce a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

So, what can we do to help ourselves and the young people in our lives develop healthy self-esteem?

  1. Accept yourself. Embrace the fact that you are uniquely made and what you have to offer is what this world needs.
  1. Avoid labeling yourself. Try not to use words or statements that are negative like, “I’m stupid” or “I’m not attractive.”
  1. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Knowing your strengths will help you believe in your abilities. Knowing your weaknesses gives you the ability to strengthen them and accept your limitations.
  1. Set goals. Working towards your goals will help prove that you are capable, which boosts your self-esteem.
  1. Be objective. Don’t take responsibility for things that aren’t your fault or blame yourself for negative outcomes. It can also be easy to blame others for conflicts that may not be their fault. Know what is true in the situation, take responsibility when necessary, and work to move past it.
  1. Avoid comparisons. Don’t compare yourself to others, especially on social media. It’s also important to avoid comparing other people, like comparing your kids to one another. We are each made differently. You cannot fit a square peg into a round hole.
  1. Communicate. Communication can be a difficult task for many. Assertive communication is the key. Clear, concise, direct and non-confrontational communication will go a long way. It might be helpful to use an “I statement” like this:
    1. I feel ______when you _____ because________.
    2. What I need is _______.

I hope these tips are helpful in creating self-esteem that is more positive for yourself and your kids. Just remember to practice! Failure can happen, but I like to think of it as a minor setback. Find the areas that need improving, make adjustments, and try again.

By Heidi Mikac, Youth First, Inc.

Many of us are guilty of overusing social media and ignoring its negative impact on our mental health. Before our eyes are even adjusted to the morning light, most of us squint at our bright rectangular screens to check social media sites or text messages to make sure we didn’t miss anything. As a Youth First Social Worker in a school building, I see the consequences of social media overuse and misuse every day in both my students and myself. 

When I was in middle school, I remember the dreaded dial-up modem. It would take a painful amount of time to get on the internet, and it would make that irritating sound that made my ears bleed. No sooner than I was able to get onto my computer game, my sister would make a phone call to her boyfriend and knock me off the internet.

Now, students can look up anything in a matter of seconds. Middle school aged kids crave validation and admiration from their peers. The way they seek that nowadays is through social media. When I went to school, I would seek it through writing and theater. I used to enjoy hanging out with my friends outside riding our bicycles (or those totally rad Razor scooters!).

When I ask most of my middle school clients what their plans are for the weekend, most of them tell me that they will be watching YouTube or scrolling through social media. Several studies have shown that the overuse of social media (especially in children) is contributing to self-esteem issues and depression.

Cyberbullying has contributed to these issues in a larger way than we can imagine. It is easy for kids and teens to digitally harass someone they don’t like at school from the safety of their bedrooms – or sometimes even the classroom.

There have been many occasions when I’ve had to deal with students who are taunting each other through social media sites or their school email during class. It seems some kids are hyper-focused on their social life, and it’s causing them to neglect their academic work. In my observation, this is contributing to a rise in serious school disciplinary actions, such as in-school suspensions, suspensions, and even expulsion.

So, is it worth allowing kids to have phones? I know there may be some gasps when I suggest that maybe unlimited access to phones and social media does more harm than good. Many parents are concerned that they won’t be able to directly contact their child without a cell phone, which is understandable. However, being a nineties kid, I can tell you that I survived not having constant contact with my parents via cell phone.

When I was a kid, being without a cell phone (or internet) forced me to go outside with my friends, exercise, and avoid drama. Although cell phones may now be a necessary part of our children’s’ lives, it’s important to find a balance between the connections children make in the digital world and those they make in the real world.

February 1, 2023

The Community Foundation of Morgan County (CFMC) is investing in mental health support for K-12 youth. A $10,000 grant award was presented to Youth First, Inc., by CFMC on Thursday, January 19. The check presentation was held at Bell Intermediate Academy in Martinsville, with CFMC, Metropolitan School District of Martinsville, Mooresville Consolidated School Corporation, and Youth First staff represented. 

The grant will allow for mental health support through school social work services in selected Martinsville and Mooresville schools. Youth First partners with 110 schools across 12 Indiana counties to embed 83 skilled social workers in school buildings, where they become specialized mentors for students and prevention coaches for parents and teachers. They also coordinate with community partners such as the Boys and Girls Club of Morgan County and the Morgan County Substance Abuse Council, among others, to connect students and families to resources and services. Youth First Social Workers build caring relationships, foster readiness for positive change, and boost resiliency along with other valuable life skills.

Research shows these protective factors are the keys to preventing addiction, suicide, violence, and similar outcomes for young people. The organization’s positive outcomes are driving growth, with more schools seeking Youth First’s help to address the mental health needs of students and best equip them for success.

Brittani Bentley, President of the Community Foundation of Morgan County, says: “Youth First is the ideal grantee. They are continuously improving their programming based on the need of our Morgan County students. In a 2019 youth survey, students from four Morgan County school systems reported they need access to mental health professionals to develop the skills they need to cope with the real world. While the 2019 data is pre-pandemic, educators tell us that the need for this service has only increased. Youth First Social Workers are the heroes providing the services our youth tell us they desperately need.”


About Youth First, Inc.:

Youth First’s mission is to strengthen youth and families through evidence-based programs that prevent substance abuse, promote healthy behaviors, and maximize student success. Youth First partners with 110 schools across 12 Indiana counties to provide 83 Master’s level social workers who assess needs, develop and implement prevention plans, and connect students and their families to vital resources. Youth First also offers community programs involving parents and caregivers to strengthen families. For more information about Youth First, please visit

January 16th, 2023

Youth First will host a ribbon cutting on Tuesday, January 17 at 9:00 am to mark its 25th anniversary and kick off a year of celebrations. The media is invited to attend. The ribbon cutting will take place at Youth First’s office located at 111 SE Third Street, Suite 405, in downtown Evansville.

Founded in 1998, Youth First celebrates 25 years of strengthening the mental health and well-being of young people. Today, over 50,000 students in 117 partner schools across 13 Indiana counties have access to 83 Youth First Social Workers and hundreds of prevention programs. These specialized mentors and evidence-based programs strengthen thousands of youth and families every year.

The milestone year ahead will include a celebratory gala and anniversary edition of the organization’s signature auction and an awards reception honoring youth and educators. These events will also honor the donors and community partners who have supported Youth First over the years.

Featured speakers at the ribbon cutting include Leah Wentzel Barger, a young adult whose life was transformed by Youth First’s support; Dr. William Wooten, Youth First Founder; Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke; Jon Scheer, Edward Jones Financial Advisor; Cheryl Wathen, Deaconess Health System Chief Financial Officer and Youth First Board Chair; and Parri Black, Youth First President & CEO. Youth First Board Members, staff, and Evansville Regional Economic Partnership (E-REP) ambassadors will be in attendance, and light refreshments will be served.

The ribbon cutting will formally announce the upcoming Silver Lining Gala Celebrating Youth First’s 25th Anniversary presented by Edward Jones, to be held on Saturday, April 22, at USI’s Carter Hall. The gala will feature an anniversary edition of Youth First’s Passport to Adventure auction as well as a formal dinner, program, dancing, and other entertainment. The event commemorates Youth First’s 25th anniversary by honoring the supporters who have enabled Youth First to be the silver lining for vulnerable young people burdened by clouds of sadness, adversity, and uncertainty. Tickets and event sponsorships are available.


About Youth First, Inc.:
Youth First’s mission is to strengthen youth and families through evidence-based programs that prevent substance abuse, promote healthy behaviors, and maximize student success. Youth First partners with 117 schools across 13 Indiana counties to provide hundreds of prevention programs and 83 Master’s level social workers who assess needs, develop and implement prevention plans, and connect students and their families to vital resources. Youth First also offers community programs involving parents and caregivers to strengthen families. For more information about Youth First, please visit                                                                                                                

By Christine Weinzapfel-Hayden, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

Children are creatures of habit. They thrive in calm, consistent, predictable environments. When there is change for them, or even when they have the anticipation of change, it can create anxiety.

As much as we would love to put our kids in a protective bubble, it is impossible to create a life for our children that is free of any fears or anxiety. Rather, what we should aim to do is help give them the tools, the strength, and the confidence to navigate new, anxiety-provoking situations with confidence and bravery.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell what anxiety looks like, especially with older children who more naturally start to pull away from their families. Some symptoms include new feelings of overstimulation (or becoming more easily overstimulated), becoming “hyper focused” on things they are worried about, feeling overwhelmed by daily tasks, or expressing fear of participating in activities or leaving home.

They could also have physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, headaches, bowel issues, or consistently feeling sick. As a parent, it can feel incredibly overwhelming when your child is struggling in these ways. However, it is important to know there are many tools we can put in your toolbox to help guide them through their more difficult moments.

  1. Be a model of self-regulation. This means when we see that our child is feeling anxious, we want to help them learn how to self-regulate and express how they’re feeling in a healthy way. It is important to remember that our children need to be calm before they can talk to us about what they are feeling.

There are several great strategies for helping a child self-regulate when they are feeling “big feelings.” First, I would recommend deep breathing with long, slow breaths. Inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, release for four seconds. The second technique is 5-4-3-2-1 grounding, which helps children find five things they can see, four things they can hear, three things they can feel, two things they can smell and one thing they can taste.

  1. Help them with visualizations. Visualization entails using the mind to picture a place that makes them feel safe and calm. They can use this very powerful tool at any time.
  1. Ask them to choose an activity you know they enjoy. This could include creating something artistic, being physically active, listening to or playing music, etc. By joining them in the activity while they are upset, you are re-enforcing the activity as a coping mechanism.

Anxiety is a big feeling. It can be overwhelming for the child as well as the parent. Together you can use healthy coping skills and communication to help your child work through their anxiety.

If you feel things are not getting better, professional help is always a positive choice for your child. Teaching our kids that it is okay to ask for help when they need it is also important. The Youth First Social Worker in your child’s school is always available to help as well.