Laura Arrick, LCSW – Youth First Social Worker at Evansville Day School and Signature School in Vanderburgh County

Q: What called you to become a social worker?

A: I always knew I had the essential skills (good listener, empathetic, people-person, adaptable, genuinely caring, etc.), but I didn’t really feel called to the profession until my internships in college. Seeing social work in action and how I could use those skills to help people grow and heal was when I knew this was what I was passionate about. I haven’t looked back since. 

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

A: By far the most rewarding part of my job is the connections I am able to make with the students. Being in their buildings and alongside them as they navigate their journey is so awe-inspiring. We have time to cultivate these trusting and safe relationships with one another and those bonds really make this work meaningful.

Q: What does mental health mean to you?

A: For me, mental health centers around a person’s emotional and psychological well-being. It is incredibly complex and ever-evolving. I am often challenged by the fact that no one technique works for everyone and figuring out how to tailor effective tools/strategies to each individual constantly keeps me learning and growing as well.

Q: How has social work influenced the way you view younger generations?

A: My work with students has definitely challenged my viewpoints in a lot of ways. They are so much more complex and complicated than we sometimes give them credit for. It’s easy to dismiss them or think they can’t possibly understand or think clearly and rationally about situations. When in fact they have a lot to offer and are often so much more open and non-judgemental. 

Q: Which mental health tools/strategies do you think are the most impactful or effective for students?

A: I think it is important for young people to be able to understand and process their belief systems and automatic thoughts. Once they gain that awareness, they can then problem-solve and think about their behaviors in a different light.

Leah Lottes, LSW – Youth First Social Worker at Barr-Reeve Community Schools in Daviess County 

Q: What called you to become a social worker? 

A: Youth First was actually my reason for becoming a social worker! I was studying psychology in undergrad, and I had no idea what to do with a psych degree. I interned with Youth First my senior year, and I loved everything about the internship. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a social worker and work in a school. So I went on to get my Master’s in Social Work and somehow I lucked out and ended up working at Youth First at such an incredible school! 

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job? 

A: The most rewarding part of my job is being able to meet with so many students. I love building connections with students and being able to see them overcome the challenges they face. 

Q: Which mental health tools/strategies do you think are the most impactful or effective for students? 

A: I think just ensuring students have a support system in place where they have at least one trusted adult for them to talk to makes a world of difference. It’s the greatest tool to help students feel heard, and they then have the opportunity to talk about how they’re feeling and know they are not alone in the struggles they are going through.  

Q: In what ways has the Covid-19 pandemic affected youth mental health? 

A: The pandemic has created increased anxiety with students of all ages. The loss of loved ones, fear of the unknown, and social distancing from family and friends definitely has taken a toll on students, but the pandemic has also shown how resilient kids are.

By Lori Powell, LCSW – March 9, 2022 –

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I always had good intentions about exercising, but I just could never find the time to select the program that would work best for me. I used excuses such as, “I’m too tired!” or, “I don’t have enough time to exercise.”

Only 5 percent of adults residing in the United States exercise 30 minutes per day, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When the world shut down at the beginning of the pandemic, I was working from home and feeling multiple emotions about all the changes that were happening in the world. As a social worker, I knew that I needed to identify and begin using positive coping skills to stay mentally and physically healthy.

First, I began thinking about exercise options. There are so many different types of physical exercise: walking, running, aerobics, YOGA, playing a sport, dancing, swimming, biking, gardening, or even cleaning! One day, I decided to pull out an aerobic exercise program that I had used in the past. I decided to attempt the exercises again by setting a goal to exercise for one week using this program.  

After the first day I was exhausted. My muscles were sore and I could not keep up with the trainer, but I reminded myself that this is a positive way to help myself be healthier, both physically and mentally. I knew that exercise would boost my self-confidence, help me relax, and decrease my high stress levels due to the pandemic.  

The instructor used humor, which made the exercises more enjoyable. Finding a program that I enjoyed made it easier for me to make the commitment to exercise regularly.

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise on a weekly basis for most healthy adults. According to the American Heart Association, “Physical exercise is linked to better sleep, memory, and cognitive ability and results in less risk of weight gain, chronic disease, dementia, and depression.  Exercise is one of the best things that you can do for your health and wellbeing.” 

If you determine exercise is the positive coping skill that works best for you, I recommend that you select an exercise that you enjoy, set a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goal, and give yourself a positive reward when you achieve each goal. For example, if you enjoy walking, set an achievable goal of walking for 30 minutes three times weekly for four weeks. 

Schedule this goal on your calendar to remind yourself to keep working towards it. Share your fitness goals with friends or family members who will encourage you. When you reach your goals, reward yourself with something special. Continue to set SMART goals to help maintain your physical activities in the future, and reap the mental and physical benefits associated with using exercise as a coping skill.

Alliyah Patton, LSW – Youth First Social Worker at North High School in Vanderburgh County

Q: What called you to become a social worker?

A: I think some of the best social workers have been through quite a bit themselves. I wished I had someone to talk to about the anxiety I felt through high school. I didn’t know what exactly social anxiety was at the time, which caused me to feel isolated from everyone else. When I took classes in college, it was enlightening and validating to know there was a name for what I felt. After a few more courses, I realized I didn’t want anyone else to feel that lonely either.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

A: I could write a list of the amazing interactions I have with students each day. One of the most rewarding aspects of the job is seeing the resiliency and strength of our students. They have every reason in the world to quit and give up, but everyday they keep working and trying. I can never not be inspired and humbled by them. From there, it’s amazing to see their growth once they develop the skills to maneuver through each of their situations.

Q: In what ways has the Covid-19 pandemic affected youth mental health?

A: I see a lot more anxiety within high school students now and definitely an increase in avoidant behaviors (skipping, poor attendance, lack of motivation). Their school schedule has been disrupted and they’ve been isolated from one another. Now, we are expecting them to come back and continue, like nothing really happened. It’s been a hard and difficult transition, for sure.

Emily Bernhardt, LSW – Youth First Social Worker at Holy Cross Catholic School, St. James Catholic School, St. Joseph Catholic School, and Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic School in Gibson County

Q: What called you to become a social worker?

A: I met with my Youth First Social Worker when I was in high school and she had such a strong impact on me. I knew I wanted to be able to have that same impact and be able to help people in the same ways she helped me.  

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

A: When a student shares the ways they feel I have helped them to grow.

Q: Which mental health tools/strategies do you think are the most impactful or effective for students?

A: Having healthy coping skills and a strong support system.

Ashley Manship, LSW – Youth First Social Worker at Paoli Jr./Sr. High School and Throop Elementary in Orange County

Q: What called you to become a social worker?

A: I’ve always had the strong desire to help and advocate for others. 

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

A: Working with children and hearing/seeing positive outcomes and praises they give to me. 

Q:  What does mental health mean to you?

A:  Mental health means all of you. How is all of you doing? How are you handling your life, your relationships, your school/career life, your physical health? 

Q: Which mental health tools/strategies do you think are the most impactful or effective for students?

A: Building a trusting relationship through engagement, empathy, reflective listening, and guidance.  

Q: In what ways has the Covid-19 pandemic affected youth mental health?

A: Covid-19 has slowed the world down for them. It has taken away opportunities for them to grow, learn, and have essential social experiences. Some students have been in school for 2 years and have never eaten their breakfast in a cafeteria or been on a field trip.

Q: How has social work influenced the way you view younger generations?

A: Social work is all about meeting the client where they are. When working with the younger generations you are constantly viewing the world through their eyes. It keeps me in the realization that they have real and heavy conflicts/problems that have major impacts on them. 

Jessie Laughlin, LSW – Youth First Social Worker at Edgewood Junior High School in Monroe County

Q: What called you to become a social worker?

A: I started college as an education major. During early field experience, I crossed paths with a school social worker. In learning more about their role, I knew that could be a great fit for me as I’ve always been an advocate for both mental health and education. Being a social worker allows me to work in so many different capacities; counselor, advocate, educator, community resource.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

A: It is an honor when a student lets you into their world. It’s really special to see a moment when a student overcomes an obstacle, finding and using their natural strengths and putting into play the skills they’ve been working hard on. I love that I get to be part of nurturing a student’s mental health so they can best learn and grow. 

Q: What does mental health mean to you?

A: Every being has mental health, and it’s complex and changes day to day. The stigma around mental health is really unfortunate, and I hope that one day everyone will treat mental health like physical health; just another part of our holistic self-care. 

Q: How has social work influenced the way you view younger generations?

A: I have seen the power and change that comes with youth having at least one positive adult in their life, who cares for them and is looking out for them. That one person can make such a difference in their outcomes. 

Younger generations are eager to learn about the world, movements, injustice, and change. I’m really hopeful their awareness, engagement, and discussion surrounding mental health is moving our outlook and treatment of mental health in the right direction. Youth mental health seems to follow trends and is ever changing, depending on what is going on in the world and our culture. 

Q: Which mental health tools/strategies do you think are the most impactful or effective for students?

A: I am a big fan of mindfulness strategies. It’s helpful and effective for most people in many different situations; self-care, attention/focus concerns, stress and anxiety, self-esteem, anger, etc. 

By Jessie Laughlin, LSW – February 23, 2022 –

Body image and self-awareness begin at a young age, even before kindergarten. As children transition into teenagers, they become more aware of themselves and who they are becoming, which includes their body that is drastically changing due to normal development.

Body image can be influenced by family and peer relationships, cultural norms, societal pressures, and media. Youth with a positive body image are more successful, happier, and more comfortable with themselves. Those with negative body image are at risk for developing low self-esteem and mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, substance use, and eating disorders.

As caregivers, we have the opportunity and responsibility to help young people shape a healthy self-image. Here are some ways to do just that.

  1. Be a safe space. Create an environment that feels comfortable and allows freedom to express concerns and feelings. Listen, be honest, use empathy, and refrain from judgement.
  1. Lift them up. Compliment your child’s achievements, hard work, and resiliency. Praise their unique qualities and positive personality traits. Focus on attributes not related to their size, shape or weight, such as their eyes, their smile, or their hair.
  1. Limit media exposure. Comparison is an easy trap to fall into and can cause feelings of insufficiency and envy. Seeking “likes” becomes a reward system that can turn into an obsession and a measurement of someone’s value. Limit screen time, monitor social media, and talk about the unrealistic features of filters, photoshop, and aesthetic curation. Encourage them to follow people and causes that make them feel good about themselves. Keep in mind that even media that encourages health and athleticism can have negative messages.
  1. Focus on health. Health has different shapes and sizes. Prioritize a healthy sleep schedule, nutrition, and hydration. Explore and offer a variety of foods and cook together, encourage a balanced diet, and talk about nutrition in terms of how food fuels our body, not with labels of “good” and “bad” foods. Encourage healthy movement that makes them feel good and improves strength, rather than achieving a figure.
  1. Embrace diversity. Have conversations about diversity in bodies. Educate your child about normal changes that occur throughout life, especially during puberty. Have routine conversations about prejudice and stereotypes towards bodies and beauty norms. Never shame or compare other body types, including your own.
  1. Be a role model. Young people watch and mirror adults, including behaviors and choices surrounding health. Model and support a healthy lifestyle and be positive towards yourself and others so those around you adopt a similar focus. Check in on your own self-image. Avoid using nicknames and insults that are shameful. Use caution with diet culture and workout obsessions that are often masked as a “lifestyle.” This verbiage can be very harmful and influence a youth’s future relationship with food and movement. 

If you feel your child is struggling with an unhealthy body image, consult with your family doctor, nutritionist, and mental health provider for professional guidance and a plan best suited for their personal needs. 

By Kelly McClarnon, LCSW – February 17, 2022 –

When I started as a first year school social worker with years of experience in a clinical setting, I was surprised by how many kids were coming to my office with symptoms of anxiety.

Manifestations of anxiety can take on many forms. In addition to some children having physical symptoms that can’t be attributed to a virus or illness, anxiety may also involve kids thinking upsetting thoughts and conjuring up wild “what ifs.”  

To make matters worse, I’ve met with several children who have lost a loved one due to COVID-19. Grief adds to the complexity of understanding the world around them.

Here are a few things both parents and school staff can utilize when faced with a student who is struggling with anxious thoughts.

  1. Try belly breathing. Ask the student to place a hand on their chest and a hand on their belly. Tell them to expand their belly instead of their chest with each inhale. This teaches them how to take deep breaths which can physiologically calm the mind and body.
  1. Use mindfulness techniques. This can look like praying with the child or asking them to name things they are thankful for (it’s hard to be worried when they can articulate their blessings). Ask them to clear their mind and just picture a blank space for as long as they are able.
  1. Help them put their worries into perspective. Sometimes just stating what their worries are out loud and having a supportive person help them put things into perspective can provide reassurance.
  1. Have open conversations. Let them know their concerns are valid and that you understand why they may be worried. Reassure them that it’s ok to talk about their worries. We do not want children to feel anxious about feeling anxious.
  1. Name their worries. One term that I’ve often heard used is “the worry monster.” Explain that this is a bully in our mind who is responsible for making them (and everyone else) think worrisome thoughts. When those thoughts come up, tell them to tell the worry monster to go away!
  1. Make a list of coping activities. Listening to music, journaling, reading, physical activity, and getting outside are all great outlets that can help students minimize anxious thoughts.
  1. Model and teach healthy behaviors. Children need to see their caregivers modeling healthy ways of managing worries and stress. They will learn from your example. 

For the children I see, there are so many unknowns. Will school close again? Will I be cut off from family/friends?  Will another important event be cancelled?  Will I get sick? Will my loved ones get sick? Children are still often isolated with events being cancelled, quarantines, and some in-person activities taking place virtually. All these factors contribute to the increase in anxiety that mental health professionals are seeing. 

This is not an argument for or against the restrictions put in place due to Covid-19, but an effort to raise awareness that the changes in our everyday lives are impacting our children’s mental health. Teaching children how to manage anxiety so it doesn’t spiral out of control is an important part of nurturing a child. Hopefully the strategies above can help the next time you have a child struggling with anxiety.

Valero Corporation has awarded $20,000 to Youth First, Inc. to strengthen the mental health and well-being of students in Posey County.

The grant will allow continued support for students at West Elementary School, St. Matthew Catholic School, and St. Philip Catholic School in Mt. Vernon; South Terrace Elementary School in Blairsville; and North Elementary School, North Posey Jr. High School, and North Posey High School in Poseyville.

Youth First partners with 107 schools across 13 Indiana counties to embed skilled social workers in school buildings, where they become specialized mentors for students and prevention coaches for parents and teachers. 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 effective prevention of negative outcomes for young people. The organization’s positive work and strategies are driving growth, with more schools seeking Youth First’s help to address the growing need for mental health supports for students.

“We’re driven to make a difference for our community,” said Chris Rhea, Plant Manager of the Valero Mt. Vernon Ethanol Plant. “We’re proud to continue supporting Youth First and all they do to improve children’s lives in Posey County.”

Youth First President & CEO Parri O. Black stated, “Our children are growing up in a complex and challenging world that puts them at greater risk for substance use, suicide, violence and harmful behaviors, and the stress of the pandemic will affect the mental health of our youth for years to come. The continued investment of Valero Corporation is critical to achieving Youth First’s mission of cared-for kids. Working together, we can provide Posey County youth with the support and coping tools needed to become thriving adults.”