Vail Valley’s Eat Chat Parent series this year focuses on youth mental health

This articles was written by Pam Boyd and printed in the Vail Daily on October 21, 2018.

EAGLE COUNTY — Despite what their cranky neighbors may say, kids today don't really have it easy.

Forces that their grandparents, and even their parents, never had to fathom complicate the lives of today's youth. Those pressures result in a raft of mental health challenges that require skill and understanding — but kids may not know what they need, and parents may not grasp the depth of their children's challenges.

Locally, the Eagle River Youth Coalition is committed to bridging that gap, making mental health issues the focus of this year's Eat Chat Parent series.

The series name pretty much sums up its mission. Free monthly programs are offered a Battle Mountain High School and Eagle Valley High School. A complimentary dinner is served, baby-sitting services are provided, and pertinent information is presented. From there, a discussion ensues. Kids age fifth grade and older are welcome to attend the programs and engage in the talk.

Mental Health issues

According to Carol Johnson, Eagle River Youth Coalition community education manager, when the organization distributed evaluation forms following the 2017 series, participants made it clear that they wanted more mental health programing.

"There was an overwhelming response from parents wanting to learn about anxiety and depression," Johnson said.

As the Eagle River Youth Coalition began putting its 2018 program together, the idea of focusing the year's programming on youth mental health issues developed. Johnson said Vail Health had already committed to sponsoring a program on the topic, but when hospital officials learned about the Coalition's expanded focus, it signed on as the sponsor for the entire 2018-19 schedule.

Tech Brain

Earlier this month, the first program in the series featured Dr. Lisa Strohman presenting "Your Kids' Brain on Tech." This presentation detailed the often-alarming presence of technology in the lives of teens and tweens.

"We had the largest audience for the session that we have ever had. We knew we had struck a chord," Johnson said.

More than 550 people attended sessions at the two valley high schools.

Strohman has spent more than a decade working with adolescents and families in her private practice and almost two decades working with schools to address challenges with student mental health and well being. She has worked with law enforcement and the FBI on safety and cybercrimes involving adolescents, while also lending her knowledge and guidance to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She is a member of the American Bar Association and chairperson of American Psychological Association, Committee on Legal Issues and the author of the book "Unplugged."

"Dr. Strohman shared a lot of real stories which opened people's eyes about the dangers of technology," Johnson said. "She stressed how important it is for parents to know their kids' digital footprint."

Strohman offered practical advice for kids — don't digitally engage with strangers and never enable locator features — as well as parents. Her comments were an eye-opener, Johnson said. For more information about Strohman's work, visit http://www.digital citizenacademy.org.

"We received a lot of grateful comments from parents," Johnson said.

"With access to computers at school, at home and at friends' houses, children are dangerously vulnerable," said Vail Health President and CEO Doris Kirschner following the presentation. "Dr. Strohman shared the realities of the indelible and potentially damaging digital footprint each person creates. She showed how technology can be misused for bullying, stalking, identify theft, scams and pornography."

Next Up: 'Like'

Coming in November, Eat Chat Parent will expand on those lessons, starting with a showing of the Indie Flix documentary "Like," followed by a discussion. The film explores the impact of social media on our lives and the effects of technology on the brain.

The film's creators say their goal was "to inspire and help equip us to self-regulate. Social media is a tool and social platforms are a place to connect, share and care … but is that what's really happening?"

"They do a really good job at getting teens and tweens to tell their stories," Johnson said. "There is definitely a tie between anxiety and depression and all this technology use."

As the series continues through 2019, Eat Chat Parent will explore topics including cyberbullying, self-esteem in the context of social media and substance abuse. Johnson hopes attendance will continue building as adults and kids embrace the goal of mental wellness.

"Mental health is as important as physical health, and it's critical that we keep our minds engaged in positive thoughts and activities that enhance our lives," Kirschner said.

"These session are for parents with kids of all ages," Johnson said. "It's never too early to learn about these issues. We believer in talking early and talking often."

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If you go …

What: Eat Chat Parent, with a showing of the documentary “Like,” followed by a discussion about the effects of social media on our lives.

When and where: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Nov. 7, at Eagle Valley High School;
Thursday, Nov. 8, at Battle Mountain High School.

Cost: Free.

Dinner is provided along with free child care. RSVP to Carol Johnson, Eagle River Youth Coalition community education manager, at cjohnson@eagleyouth.org for child care reservations. The film will have Spanish subtitles, and youth fifth grade and older are invited to attend with their parent. Click here for more info.