MAYS LANDING — Outside the AtlantiCare Teen Center at Oakcrest High School, a small garden is beginning to bloom.
Large stones are scattered around the soil bearing positive phrases.
Six weeks ago, the garden was an overgrown patch of grass, but the incoming ninth-graders who attended the Fresh Start freshman camp had to weed and prepare the soil for growth.
“We start out with planting seeds,” said Sheri Marcantuono, the mindfulness coach who this year brought her #IAmFree curriculum to Oakcrest’s freshman camp. “What they had to do was think about what they wanted to bring into freshmen year.”
Over the past month and a half, the garden has become a metaphor in many ways for the students to learn how to navigate their first year of high school. This is the first year the Teen Center at Oakcrest has incorporated the mindfulness curriculum into its freshman program in response to the growing need for mental health services among young people locally and nationwide.
A recent report from the New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers University illustrated an alarming rise in youth suicide attempts over the past year and a half. The data collected show 100 children between the ages of 9 and 12 attempted suicide by overdose, a 100% increase from 2015.
In New Jersey last week, the governor signed a law mandating mental health education for students from kindergarten to 12th grade.
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Micah Walker, 15, of Mays Landing, said he has learned a lot of skills through the program to prepare him for high school, especially breathing techniques, a specialty of Marcantuono.
“The breathing helps because I was a stressful person. The breathing helps me calm down, think things through,” Walker said.
He chose the word “zen” to paint on his rock.
“For me, it can mean a lot of things,” Walker said. “It can mean baseball or any sport you like to do.”
Amber Harris, director of the AtlantiCare Teen Center at Oakcrest, said about 20 students signed up for this year’s program, although it is open to any incoming freshmen.
“The goal is to help the students make a successful transition from middle school,” Harris said.
For the first year and a half of his life, Cole Renart lived 60% of his day in language isolation.
The students participate in interactive workshops, learn time management and goal setting, and go on trips.
Last spring, Harris brought Marcantuono into several classrooms to teach the breathing techniques to students as a positive coping skill.
“It was so successful,” Harris said, they decided to add it as a component to the freshman program.
Harris said teens entering high school are already highly stressed and dealing with issues related to mental well-being.
“What we’re seeing is there is greater exposure, due to technology, at a younger age,” Harris said. “We’re seeing higher instances of bullying in middle school. Our thought process is the sooner we can address the issues, the better.”
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Harris said the students learn how to communicate about their mental health, where to go for support and how to identify triggers.
“This is getting them to be very thoughtful about ‘What do I need emotionally?’” she said.
Harris said so many students who come through the program as freshmen end up staying with it through all four years of high school.
“That’s why graduation is so bittersweet for us,” she said. “We knew them before their teachers.”
She said they come back each year because they want to, and often refer their friends to the Teen Center.
Harris said her goal with the Teen Center is to never hear from a student that they didn’t know it existed.
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In addition to Oakcrest, Marcantuono has taught her curriculum at Atlantic City High School for the past three summers and one day a week during the school year.
Marcantuono said the students learn what “going into high school successfully” really means.
“With some of the curriculum, they were able to think about themselves in a way they never really had to before,” she said, and to take on more self-awareness and personal responsibility.
Harris said programs like this are important for schools, and that parents and administrators need to advocate for the services provided at the Teen Center.
“The funding needs to be there, and the districts need to say, ‘We need these services for students,’” she said. “The school staff tells us all the time what a relief it is for them to be able to refer students here.”