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Jacksonville Girl Scouts launch mental health ambassador program

The training starts Saturday for girls ages 12-17. It comes as a CDC report shows suicide attempts have skyrocketed among teens during the pandemic.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Friday shows suicide attempts among adolescents during the pandemic skyrocketed, especially in girls.

According to the data, emergency room visits for suicide attempts by children 12 to 17-years-old increased by about 22 percent last summer compared to the summer of 2019. That number jumped about 51 percent in girls 12 to 17 from February to March of this year.

"I read that article and I went out to my husband and I said, 'I knew it,' but it just broke my heart," Mary Anne Jacobs, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Gateway Council, said.

“In one sense, this, while it is very sobering to see that statistic, it's also to be expected given the isolation that we've all experienced recently," Psychologist Dr. Tracy Alloway said.

Alloway said Friday alone, three of her clients in that demographic talked about the toll the pandemic has had on their mental health. She said parents should be aware of changes in their children's behaviors, like eating or sleeping more or less than usual.

“Another example is self-soothing behaviors. So, things like touching your arm more frequently, or even hair pulling, these behaviors are ways for us to try to create a way to calm ourselves down, and if you're noticing your child exhibiting these more than they usually would, this could be a good indicator to give them a space to ask what's going on," Alloway said.

Jacobs said the Gateway Girl Scouts have increased their programming over the pandemic so girls can stay connected "and have the resources they need to fulfill their self-esteem." 

One of those programs is a mental health ambassador training launched with Baptist Health and area professionals. The pilot program starts Saturday and is for girls ages 12 to 17. Jacobs said they didn't know about the CDC's study when they planned the ambassador program, but the Girl Scout's Research Institute has been keeping similar data.

"We have been preparing all along to deliver a program like our mental health ambassador program to girls and adults so that they can really fully understand the stigma behind mental health and be able to identify mental health issues, and intervene on behalf of themselves and intervene on behalf of their friends or others," Jacobs said.

She said the program will also teach girls skills for self-care. The course Saturday has another component next week and is at capacity. Jacobs said there's a waiting list for future sessions, which will include a course for adults too.

According to Jacobs, they're planning to launch more trainings for the fall but may reevaluate. 

“Honestly, after reading the article today that was released by the CDC and their research, there is such a need for this program, not just in our regional area and market, but across the United States, actually, but particularly in Florida," Jacobs said. 

"Although I cannot speak out for my wonderful staff and Baptist who are putting the program and hosting the program with the Girl Scouts, I think there's such a need that we really need to reassess, do we wait until the fall," Jacobs said.

If you want to get on the waiting list for future training sessions, you can visit the Gateway Girl Scouts' website

If you or anyone you know may need help with mental health concerns, help is available. You can go to Psychology Today's website, type in your zip code, and find a licensed therapist in your area.

You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 24/7 at 800-273-8255, or text HOME to 741741 to talk to a trained crisis counselor.