By Jenna Kruse, LSW – June 29, 2022 –

It’s no secret that there has been a great shift in the types of activities that children prefer. According to the Child Mind Institute, the average American child spends 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outside, while spending over 7 hours a day in front of a screen. These numbers are concerning and are directly correlated to the increase of mental health concerns in young students.

There are many benefits of outdoor, unstructured play for children. Unstructured time outside is said to reduce stress and is important to foster skills such as creativity, responsibility, and confidence. Outdoor play also improves physical health and overall mood. Here are several other benefits to sending your children outside for playtime.

  1. Playing outside promotes creativity. When children participate in unstructured play outside, they are challenged to create their own activities, use their surrounding resources, and interact socially with those around them.
  2. Children learn how to care for the living things in their environment. Responsibility is taught in this environment because children quickly learn that, in nature, living things do not survive if they are not tended to.
  3. Making choices helps children build confidence. Children have the power to make decisions about what activities they want to play and where.
  4. Playing outside reduces stress. Children who play outside can take a break from stressors such as homework, social media, technology, etc.
  5. Another benefit of outdoor play is a dose of Vitamin D. Vitamin D is important for bone and muscle health and is absorbed from sun exposure. It is important for children to spend time in the sun, as this vitamin is not as easily absorbed in large quantities through food.
  6. Children thrive in open spaces. Outdoor play promotes better physical health due to the large space for children to move, play, and explore. When children play inside, they are often more restricted. Several sources suggest children need at least one hour of physical exercise a day. To create the right environment for outdoor learning, it is important to eliminate harmful tools or hazards such as chemicals. It is important to listen to your child’s feedback and interests, plan outdoor time into your busy daily schedule, and reduce barriers for outdoor play time.

You can participate in several different outdoor activities with your child. Finding a local park with a playground, taking a walk, throwing a Frisbee, swimming at the local pool, or taking a hike are all great family activities.

It is important to note that students are more willing to play and spend time outside if they have positive role models showing them the way.

Outdoor play has many great benefits. How can you begin to reduce screen time and increase unstructured outdoor play for your child?

By Heather Miller – June 22, 2022 –

Author Jill Churchill once wrote, “There’s no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.”

Before having children, I had many ideas of what I would and would not do as a mom. I would limit screen time, offer healthy snacks, have a consistent daily schedule, and always remain calm when correcting behavior. Then I had a baby. Two years later, another baby with special needs joined our family.

I had a decision to make. I could try in vain to be a “perfect parent” knowing I would fail, or instead choose to give myself grace. As a parent, you will make mistakes. You will have tough days. Some days it may seem as if nothing went right, but the sun will rise again the next morning.

An article by HuffPost focuses on what can be learned from making mistakes. This information also gives insight into lessons children may learn when parents recognize perfection is not the goal. These lessons are summarized as the following:

  1. When someone has a bad day, move forward and make an effort to make tomorrow better. Children will learn that it is normal to have “off” days. Focusing on the present and being mindful of current circumstances is an important lesson for all ages.
  1. Perfection is not required to be loved and accepted. Family and home are intended to be safe zones. People can be their genuine selves, knowing that they’re loved unconditionally. Behavior can be corrected and positive coping skills can be retaught. However, there needs to be a separation between disliking behavior and disliking the person. It will help children feel safe to have open communication with parents. Additionally, children will learn that it is not necessary to expect perfectionism from themselves. While we want kids to try their best, attempting to be perfect often causes increased anxiety and lower self-esteem.
  1. It is okay to ask for help. Accepting support is equally as important as providing support to others. Learning to accept help from trustworthy adults teaches children how to communicate their needs. Children learn that if they are having a rough day, there is no shame in saying so. Empathy is often a focus, as learning to consider how others feel is important. It is equally as important to teach children to recognize when they need extra support.

If parents model this behavior, children will learn to give themselves and others the same type of grace. Youth First offers several programs geared at supporting parents and families. For more information, please visit our website at youthfirstinc.org.

By Brooke Skipper, LCSW – June 15, 2022 –

Most of us are familiar with the unpleasant feeling of being excluded. In order to raise children who celebrate diversity and include others, we need to be comfortable starting conversations about differences.

These conversations don’t have to be scary! Children are innately open-minded and seek honest answers out of curiosity. They don’t feel discomfort about differences unless we portray a discomfort to them.

If your child points out differences or questions you about them, take time to pause and have a positive conversation that explains diversity and the value of all people.

Our individual gifts and challenges come in many different forms. We need to demonstrate this is not only okay, but something to celebrate. By doing so, we can model self-acceptance and peer acceptance.

Here are some tips for teaching your child to be more inclusive.

  1. Confront your own biases and be comfortable challenging them. Conscious or unconscious, we all have biases. These can come from our parents, our upbringings, and our experiences in the world. Acknowledging they exist and working to overcome them is a crucial step to ensuring we do not pass down negative biases to our children.
  1. Model inclusive behavior. Children are always watching, listening, and learning. Make sure the behavior you are projecting is the behavior you desire your children to emulate at home, school, and in the community. Celebrate diversity, use respectful language, and treat everyone with kindness and respect. Remember the golden rule to love your neighbor as yourself. If you live your life by this rule, your child will as well.
  1. Teach your child to be full of empathy and positive self-esteem. A child who feels good about who they are is more likely to be inclusive of others. Children who empathize and understand how others are feeling will be more likely to stand up for what is right.
  1. Talk about bullying. Once your child understands what empathy is and how to display it, make sure they know how to proactively stand up for others and report bullying behaviors to an adult in charge. Encourage them to befriend students who sit alone.
  1. Expose your child to diverse people and experiences. We often belong to social circles and communities of people who look like us, believe in similar things, have similar jobs and incomes, etc. Providing opportunities for your child to encounter diversity can help normalize differences and teach children there is no “one way” to be. You can do this by visiting museums, attending multi-cultural events, and reading stories that celebrate diverse characters.


Most importantly, do not shy away from the topic of differences. Be prepared to openly discuss the topic with your child in an honest, age-appropriate way.

Evansville, IN – United Way of Southwestern Indiana (UWSWI) is thrilled to announce an investment of $400,000 into improving local mental health care access for low-income residents. The Mental Health Pathway Grant is the first funding opportunity for mental health services since UWSWI shifted its focus to address root causes of poverty and help families overcome barriers to economic sufficiency. Research shows a link between poverty and mental health challenges. Likewise, there is evidence that mental health struggles prevent individuals from escaping poverty, creating a vicious cycle. A significant increase in demand for mental health care services is creating a strain on local providers, which is further limiting access.

Funding will be invested into the following local nonprofit applicants: Catholic Charities will receive $177,840 to increase the hours and capacity of a part-time counselor. In addition, grant funds will help underwrite the financial loss of providing a sliding scale fee model to low-income clients who otherwise cannot afford mental health care. Youth First is awarded $222,160 to help underwrite the cost of hiring additional social work staff. The funds will enable Youth First to hire a social worker fluent in Spanish, a Substitute School Support Specialist who will fill the gap when school social workers are absent, and a Clinical Supervisor to support the increase in capacity. Youth First identified a gap in service for students whose primary language is Spanish.

This grant will help extend service to students who were previously underserved. UWSWI is striving to develop a best-in-class grant evaluation process, which includes a thorough evaluation by local experts in the respective Pathway, as well as in financial operations. Scott Branam, CAO of Deaconess Cross Pointe commented, “With the overwhelming demand we are currently seeing in our nation and community for behavioral health, we are very excited United Way is dedicating funds for this critical service. As a member of the review taskforce, it was impressive to see the time and energy put into the process, as well as the rigor that went into the proposal review and selection of grantees. It’s a shame there is not enough money to fund every application.”

For more information on United Way’s Pathways to Potential, visit unitedwayswi.org/pathwaygrants.

By Krissy Melhiser, LSW – May 26, 2022 –

What does it take to see our children grow to be strong and healthy? Is it everyone’s responsibility?

Parenting can be so difficult at times. It seems like an endless pursuit, and you wonder if the tireless chase will result in a positive outcome. As a school social worker, I hear countless stories of the hardships parents face with their kids. Through the ups and downs, I often wonder as each generation faces the same foundational issues, what does it take to produce a healthy generation?

Since being in high school myself, I have seen an increase in anxiety and depression in young people. A world that is constantly transforming provides a multitude of reasons for this increase in mental health challenges. How can we ensure the next generation isn’t forced to grapple with more issues than the previous generation?

So what is needed? Change! A word like “change” can be so simple to understand, yet it may be one of the most difficult to put into action.

Change requires looking beyond our circumstances to find the root of the issues younger generations face. Most of us would find it is easy to change our laundry detergent or perhaps make small changes in our routine, but deep-rooted change takes more time and commitment.

So what can we do as parents, guardians, and youth advocates who have an influence on younger generations?

First we must turn inward, observe, and recognize what we need to own up to. As parents, we are not given an instruction manual. Much of what we know is learned from our own parents. Recognize that not everything we are taught is good or healthy. Therefore, it’s important for all of us to be introspective and make changes where they are necessary.

The definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” If we do the same things over and over, how can we expect change to occur for ourselves and those around us? Lead by example! Envision yourself looking into a mirror, but on the other side is not your reflection; it’s your child’s reflection instead. With every movement, word, attitude, and deed they mirror you. Are you okay with the reflection you see?

To create change, sometimes generational bonds of negative unhealthy habits need to be broken. As human beings we have proven that we can and have evolved. Therefore, we know that change can happen if we commit to seeing it through.

My challenge is this: Ask yourself what you need to own up to. You and your kids will be better for it. The negative generational cycle can and needs to be broken, not only for your own mental health and well-being, but also for the benefit of your family, community, and society as a whole.

It’s our responsibility to produce a generation that can take on the future without unnecessary hurdles. Our actions have a ripple effect on so much more than we realize. May the ripples you produce be healthy and good ones.

By Callie Sanders, LSW – May 23, 2022 –

With the demands of 21st century life such as work, parenting, endless emails, texts, social media, etc., people wear overstimulation like a badge of honor.

There seems to be a kind of confusion in our culture where people feel the need to be anxious and always “on the go” to be effective. I’m just as guilty of this.

With that being said, we find ourselves in a mindfulness revolution. It’s prominent everywhere. From hospitals to corporations, 33% of Americans said they had used alternative health practices, including meditation (National Institutes of Health).

Mindfulness practice embraces the beauty of monotasking. The way I describe mindfulness to the students I work with is simply “paying attention on purpose.”  

By incorporating mindfulness practice at my schools this year, the students that are willing to give it a try leave my office feeling less stressed. Most ask to repeat the practice during additional visits. Let’s face it, kids are stressed out too.

There aren’t any prizes handed out for being the greatest at mindfulness. It is about connecting to our experiences in a different way and giving ourselves a chance to pay attention in the present without adding more stuff to our plate.

If you’ve used phrases like, “My mind just works too fast” or “I’ve tried it and failed,” or my favorite, “I don’t have time for that,” you’re exactly the kind of person who needs mindfulness most. Mindfulness is a lifelong journey, not an all-or-nothing mentality, and it’s free.

According to a study conducted in 2013 by the University of Southern California, most Americans spend 13-plus hours a day consumed by media. No wonder everyone is stressed out.

I was skeptical when the term mindfulness was first introduced to me. But when I decided to give it a chance, I was surprised how simple it was and what I felt.

Practicing mindfulness can happen anywhere. I like to practice in my vegetable garden or out in my yard. When I take a second to sniff a fresh tomato after I pull it off the vine or listen to the birds singing in the background, I feel better.

For just that one second I was present; I noticed nature. What a powerful feeling! I encourage you to try this with your family at home. After you take a second for yourself and enjoy nature, be grateful.

Lastly, I want to leave you with some tips for your workday, especially in the afternoon when the “two o’clock yawns” kick in.

When you can take a break, don’t go straight to your phone for at least one of the breaks. A 2014 study found that being able to see a cellphone hinders the ability to focus on tough tasks.

If you can, go for a short walk and try not to ruminate on work. I realize this can be difficult, but don’t be afraid to give it a try. Ignoring your phone is a great way to practice mindfulness during the walk.

Also, do someone a favor. Not only does this help you connect to others, it aids in recovering from stress.  

Most importantly, start small. Remember, no rewards are given for being the best at mindfulness. I encourage you to put your phone down during dinner this evening and engage in conversation.  You will feel better being present.       

By Abby Betz, LSW – May 18, 2022 –

For most teens, the adolescent years are a time of rapid growth and development, both physically and emotionally. Life skills are learned and put into practice. Newfound independence is established and boundaries are tested. Additionally, teens begin to find themselves facing different stressors and pressures, exploring new identities, discovering who they are, and uncovering their future possibilities.

With this time of continuous change and excitement also comes uncertainty and fear of the unknown. Teenagers may start to imagine what life will be like once they are away from their parents. The thought of living on their own can seem like an exhilarating thrill to some, but for others, it can be a scary time full of lots of questions and “what ifs.”

Although these types of feelings are completely normal, including mood changes and some incidences of acting out, a teenager suffering from depression is different. It is important as parents and caregivers to be able to recognize these signs and ready to provide assistance.

When thinking of the clinical presentation of depression, symptoms such as overwhelming sadness, exhaustion, loss of interest, poor sleep, and decreased appetite probably come to mind. However, for adolescents, it is vital to understand that depression can also present itself as rage, anger, and irritability more than pervasive sadness.

If you suspect your teen is showing signs of depression, open the line of communication by listening. It is important not to judge, criticize, lecture, or punish them for the way they feel, but rather provide a safe space for them to express their feelings. Negative reactions quickly shut down communication and push your teen further away.

If your teen is not opening up, try discussing something light-hearted to get the conversation going and build the rapport needed for talking about topics that are more serious. Be present and let your teenager know that you are there and ready to listen.

Additionally, it is important for your teenager to know you do not find their feelings to be irrational or unrealistic. Taking all feelings and emotions seriously is essential to building a strong relationship with your teen. Acknowledge their emotions, and then reassuringly point out facts and realities that validate your teen’s feelings.

Depression is a real illness and may require the help of a professional. It is important to involve your teenager in the process of seeking professional help. Your teen will get the most out of treatment if they feel involved, motivated, and engaged. 

Some adolescents may resist seeking treatment, but as a parent or caregiver it is vital to provide support and encouragement. Reinforce that seeking help is a sign of courage and strength and that strong people are capable and deserving of feeling better.

Lastly, if your teen talks about, threatens, or even jokes about suicide, you must take it seriously. Never assume someone talking about suicide is just merely “attention-seeking.” If your teen is trying to get your attention, give it. Adolescents dealing with depression can be at higher risk for suicide. Seek professional help immediately if your teen or anyone you know shows signs of concern. 

If urgent help is needed, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline immediately at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

By Krissy Melhiser, LCSW – May 16, 2022 –

While living in Colorado for 11 years, I had access to vast beautiful landscapes and often found myself at great peace and wholeness when in nature.

What is it about nature that is so alluring and healing to the mind, body, and soul? Is it the beautiful landscapes and life in the flowers, plants, and trees? Is it the sounds of waves crashing, birds singing, and crickets chirping? Is it the smells of fresh cut grass, summer rain, and fall leaves?

There is a great deal of research to prove that exercise is extremely beneficial for a person’s mental health. Participating in outdoor activities often involves some level of exercise, but choosing to take a walk outside instead of inside on a treadmill also does so much more for the soul.

Wilderness Therapy (WT) is a fairly new concept in psychotherapy, but it is a term rarely heard in the Midwest. WT uses traditional therapeutic interventions, but it is not confined to a therapist’s office.

As the name explains, WT takes place in the wilderness where nature provides its own holistic healing. Being in the wilderness naturally brings out our survival instincts; it breaks down barriers, removes us from everyday norms, and creates an environment that doesn’t allow us to avoid certain problems.

With very few WT programs in the Midwest, how can we approach this concept? It’s as simple as you think…just go outside!

In a world where teens are spending an average of six hours a day consuming social media, time away from electronics is necessary. Mental health issues are on the rise in adolescents because teens are not able to cope with the pressures of social media or process the level of information they receive online.

I suggest you plan quiet time, slow life down a little, and stop to smell the roses (literally). Being out in nature has a way of slowing us down and removing our daily norms. It provides the break we all need, especially adolescents who are learning how to cope with the world.

Nature offers us the opportunity to reconnect our families and our relationships. More importantly, it provides a much needed mental break for all of us.

Whether you go walking, swimming, camping, hiking, or kayaking, go outside together. Spend that time reconnecting by teaching your children how to fish, change a tire, or plant flowers.

The point is to get outside and enjoy what nature has to offer. One of the best parts of nature is that it’s free; you don’t have to pay, you simply walk out your door.

I leave you with this challenge: Take at least one hour this week to go outside with your family. Increase the amount of time you spend outside each week and create new adventures.

Instead of pushing activities on your kids, give them several options so they feel less like they are being forced to do something and more like they are making the choice of what to do.

Now go outside and have some fun!

By Vicki Kirkman, LCSW, LCAC – May 13, 2022 –

Stress is a natural part of life and something that everyone experiences.  It can be positive or negative and affect your daily life greatly if not managed appropriately. In some situations, stress can motivate us to do better or work toward hard-to-reach goals. Other circumstances can leave someone feeling overwhelmed, anxious and out of control. 

Children and teens are affected by stress in several ways. Parents need to remember that all children respond to situations and experiences differently. What causes stress for one child or teen might not affect another one. However, some stressors are common for children and teens. These stressors include pressure at school, being involved in too many after school activities or conflict with friends and family. 

Other big and complicated issues like divorce, death of a loved one, drug use, and financial problems at home contribute to stress. Medical illnesses and world events like natural disasters or war and conflict can also be sources of stress.

It’s important for parents to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress in their children and help them manage it in a healthy manner. Young children who are stressed may complain of stomach aches, headaches or say they just don’t feel well. 

They may try to avoid attending school or visit the school nurse frequently. They may also be more tearful than normal, have trouble sleeping, wet the bed or not eat as much at meals. Some children experience nightmares or have acting-out behaviors such as outbursts or tantrums.

Teenagers can experience many physical reactions to stress, including digestive problems, headaches, tense muscles, racing heart, frequent colds and fatigue. Teens might also feel overly emotional, irritable, depressed and experience mood swings. 

Mentally, teens with stress overload may feel forgetful, lack concentration and have a negative attitude. Both children and teens often withdraw from activities they enjoy and isolate themselves from friends if they experience too much stress.

Parents can play a key role in helping their children and teens manage stress. Most importantly, parents can model good coping skills and stress management in their own lives. If children see their parents deal with stress in a healthy and positive manner, they are more likely to apply that to their own life. 

Other ways parents can help their children are listed below. 

  • Teach your kids how to identify their body’s cues for stress overload. Pay attention to headaches, upset stomach, tearfulness or tense muscles.
  • Limit extra-curricular activities. Too many evenings participating in sports, extra lessons, or just running errands can cause kids and teens to become tired and pressed for time to do homework or just relax.
  • Prepare ahead of time to avoid extra hassles. Lay out the next day’s clothes, pack lunches, put homework and bags in an easy place to grab, etc.
  • Monitor and limit exposure to television, social media and cell phone. Phones should be put away at night so kids can sleep and not be tempted to text friends or surf the internet.
  • Encourage relaxation and leisurely activities with friends and family.
  • Get plenty of rest and eat a healthy diet.
  • Teach communication skills like problem solving, good decision making and sharing feelings and thoughts with others.
  • Recognize when stress is too big to tackle alone. Don’t hesitate to speak to a Youth First Social Worker in your child’s school, counselor or doctor for extra support and help.

Stress management is crucial in life and best handled with the guidance of parents and supportive adults. By helping children and teens manage stress, they can be better prepared for life’s challenges.  

By Krissy Melhiser, LCSW – May 11, 2022 –

The year was 2020 and a life altering phenomenon occurred across the world. It was a pandemic that no one saw coming and few were prepared for. Most of us were at a loss at how to respond to such a devastating event. We found ourselves glued to the television or social media, trying to wrap our minds around what was happening in the world and in our very own back yard.

Although the pandemic has left its mark and many of its long-term impacts have yet to be revealed, many of us inadvertently learned to practice mindfulness. We all paused and worried about our neighbor, people across the globe, and loved ones more than we ever had. As the world stopped, we were forced to take a breath and rearrange our lives in more simple ways.

Aside from the rush on toilet paper and cleaning supplies, outdoor recreational equipment flew off shelves as people began spending more time outside and finding simple things to do at home to occupy their time. We came back to a place of rest that many of us truly needed. Our society doesn’t give much room for being mindful throughout our lives unless we make it a priority.

So what does it mean to be mindful? We live out our days ruminating over our schedules, kids, appointments, responsibilities, tasks, etc. How much time do you spend daily being aware of your five senses? Do you notice the smell of fresh bread as you pass a bakery? Do you listen to the birds chirping? How often do you simply just sit in silence without any distractions? Do you listen to your body when it tells you it needs rest?

Being mindful is being aware of what is around you and what’s within you. If you do this you might notice the person in your office having a bad day. You’ll hear the joy of people laughing. You will see a person in need and your heart will feel compassion for them. The key is that you must pause long enough to notice what is happening around you.

There are people, things, places, and moments that carry such beauty, hope, love, joy, and peace. These things can fill your life with happiness and instill compassion, not only for others, but for yourself. Be brave, be wild, and push back against the daily worries that prevent you from observing life happening around you.

Try not to go on autopilot so you can recognize the silver linings that each day holds for you. The pandemic forced a lot of us to be mindful, so don’t lose sight of this. Stop and smell the roses, literally!