Self Help

Caring for Kids: Advocates promote community-building, self-care activities as paths to mental wellness – Crain's Detroit Business

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On his monthly radio program, Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation President and CEO Larry Burns talks to community, government and business leaders about issues related to children’s health and wellness in Michigan.

Guests for this discussion were Scott Kaufman, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit; Mike Veny, mental health author, writer and speaker; and Shenandoah Chefalo, author of “Garbage Bag Suitcase” and faculty member at the Center for Trauma Resilient Communities.

The hourlong show typically airs at 7 p.m. the fourth Tuesday of each month on WJR 760AM. Here’s a summary of the show that aired Mar. 26; listen to the entire episode, and archived episodes, at

Larry Burns: Tell us about the Jewish Federation.

Scott Kaufman: The Jewish Federation has existed in one form or another for 100 years in metro Detroit. Its historic mission is to take care of the health needs of the community. In recent years we added a second mission which is community building. 

Burns: What are the activities? 

Kaufman: We fund about 17 local organizations, many of which are focused on youth, including summer camps, youth groups and programs. We also fund social service organizations in areas of mental health and special needs, most serving the entire–not just Jewish–community.

Burns: Our Foundation uses the Jewish Federation as something we aspire to be like, a more community-based organization. 

Kaufman: Your focus on kids has an enormous impact; the data shows that. The return on investment–and I don’t mean dollars–is significant. Early-life interventions make a real long-term difference. By focusing on that in our community, it’s going to make our region that much stronger. 

Burns: Can you tell us about the commitment you have in mental health and how that evolved? 

Kaufman: A few years ago we did a community-wide survey and the results were very clear, with about a thousand teenagers self-reporting very high levels of depression, anxiety and some bullying, either for themselves or people they knew. My initial reaction was that we’re not an expert in that. One of the organization heads said, “But you’re an expert in convening the community, and that’s what we need, because this is too big a problem for any one organization to deal with.” 

We looked at a collective impact approach and spent about six months with a variety of experts. We came up with a three-pronged strategy. First, change the narrative and reduce the stigma. Second, we talked about a very robust training module so people interacting with teens are able to recognize signs of problems. The third part is the back-end resources. Having Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation (CHMF) as a partner helped us launch this. 

Burns: Tell us about that partnership.

Kaufman: One of the key components to reducing the stigma was a series of high-level videos, with actual kids, teachers and doctors from the community talking about mental health issues. CHMF funded the series. The first video we put online as a soft test had 50,000 hits in three days. It went viral. High school freshmen were going up to the seniors who were in the videos, and instead of a stigma they were almost heroic. We quickly saw this is a way to change the narrative and reduce the stigma.

Larry Burns: Tell us about your personal journey.

Mike Veny: Starting at age 6, I started to struggle with behavior and have a lot of outbursts. I came from a wonderful home and my parents tried to get me help through therapy. However, things got worse and I ended up being expelled from three schools for behavior problems and hospitalized in a mental hospital three times. I attempted to die by suicide at age 10 and I self-harmed. 

The thing that turned my life around was drumming; it grounded me and let me express myself in an emotionally healthy way. Nowadays I still struggle with mental-health challenges including depression, anxiety and OCD. But I’m doing much better and I know how to cope. I’m able to live in the world and have a life and have friends. And everything is okay. 

Burns: Tell us about your book, “Transforming Stigma: How to Become a Mental Wellness Superhero.”

Veny: The subject of mental health, a lot of times, is a boring conversation. I wanted to write something that would keep people’s attention. This book gives a different perspective on what a child might be struggling with. The second half of the book is dedicated to actual solutions to truly transforming the stigma surrounding mental health. Because truth be told, it shouldn’t be a special conversation.

Burns: Could you highlight a few key elements of mental wellness? 

Veny: First, do one new activity to take care of yourself. There’s a difference between self-care activities and escape activities. Escape activities can be watching Netflix or playing video games. Self-care activities are intentional activities that you do to grow and nurture yourself. If you’re going to say that you don’t have time, that’s a problem; you need to stop saying that. Everyone can make time, especially parents. The reason I encourage parents to self-care is it helps children model self-care. 

Second, start having the conversation about mental health, even if it feels uncomfortable. You can just say, “I’m going through a rough time.” 

Third, look for opportunities to check in with people in your life. Ask, “How are you?” and really listen to what they’re saying. 

One of the questions I get often is, what do you say to someone who’s struggling? When someone’s struggling the worst thing you can do is give them advice or tell them to cheer up. There are two things you can say to someone who’s struggling. One is, “How can I support you?”  The other is, “Help me understand.” It’s important to be quiet and let them answer.

Larry Burns: Tell us about your early childhood and how it shaped your future. 

Shenandoah Chefalo: I was born in California. We were homeless often and moved over 50 times. Plagued by family members who suffered from severe addictions and mental health issues, I self-reported myself to foster care before I turned 13. I was lucky enough to have a teacher who took interest in me in high school, because I aged out of foster care halfway through my senior year. With the help of the teacher I ended up getting into Michigan State.

That became a difficult transition for me. My first year at MSU I was dealing with quite a bit of things and I attempted suicide for the first time. I was depressed, and playing into that was financial need. I was hired as a part-time receptionist in a law office and eventually worked my way up to a law office administrator. I hired a law clerk who eventually became my husband and we moved to Traverse City in 1999 to start a law office, with this idea of doing criminal law differently. 

In that work, I started to realize that our clients’ issues weren’t merely the crime that brought them to us. A lot of our clients had tumultuous childhoods and spent time in foster care. I started researching foster care statistics, trying to understand what was going on with our clients, and was floored by the statistic that approximately 70 percent of incarcerated inmates spent time in the child welfare system. At that time I hadn’t disclosed my time in the foster care system, but I made it my mission to let out this secret. I wrote “Garbage Bag Suitcase” with the hope that we could reinvent child welfare and heal trauma in order to help people make better decisions. 

Burns: You’re faculty at the Center for Trauma Resilient Communities. Tell us about the center and the “resiliency factor.” 

Chefalo: The center started because people involved in trauma-informed implementation theory were interested in how that reaches beyond the walls of foster care and into communities. Why is it that some people, like myself, go against all odds and seem to have great resiliency, and other people don’t? There are some pretty core things we can do to help people retrain their brain so that they can bounce back better. A lot of those things are based in connections and connections in communities. The center is focused on training and helping communities develop models that work in their specific group.

Evidence-based research on mental wellness will be the focus of a daylong 2019 Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Summit hosted by the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation. Hear from local and national leaders in children’s health about suicide prevention, trauma, anxiety and depression, and the stigma of substance abuse during the May 14 event.

See the agenda and register now at www.chmfoundationorg/2019bhs.

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