Benji Project offers free teen counseling during stay-home order

PORT TOWNSEND — The Benji Project is offering free online sessions for Jefferson County teens who are feeling the stress of staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

The free one-hour counseling sessions are offered twice a week and are aimed at helping middle and high school teens with stress relief and coping practices during the statewide stay-home order.

The Benji Project’s teen drop-in online lounge is funded through the Jefferson Community Foundation’s COVID-19 emergency fund, which consists of donations from individuals and organizations across the county.

Teens can join the online sessions at 7 p.m. Tuesdays or at 4 p.m. Thursdays by going to thebenjiproject.org/online-sessions and clicking on the zoom links — tinyurl.com/PDN-Benji1 on Tuesday and tinyurl.com/PDN-Benji2 on Thursday.

Certified mental health teachers work with teens on mindfulness and self-compassion to help develop coping skills for anxiety and other issues that may be present during a time of isolation.

“We work with the concept of mindfulness, being aware of experiences at the moment in a non-judgmental way,” said one of the teachers, Heather McRae-Woolf.

“We also work with self-compassion practices, as taught by the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion,” she added.

“We talk about general self-care practices and give time for students to share with each other strategies that are working for them, like getting outside and exercising every day,” she said.

As of Friday, four students had participated in the counseling, and the hope is more will join now that spring break is over and students are having more interaction with their teachers and classmates online.

So far, the majority of the participants are high school students. Woolf said they initially had expressed relief to have a break from school, but as time has passed, they have expressed feelings of loneliness due to a lack of social interaction with friends as well as stressful and challenging home dynamics.

The Benji Project started working with teens at Port Townsend High School and Blue Heron Middle School on these mindfulness practices during the 2018-19 school year and reported that 85 percent of high school freshmen and 70 percent of sixth-graders found the practices useful.

“We are planning to offer some sessions geared specifically for seniors, who were already dealing with a big time of transition that is now made more uncertain by the global pandemic,” Woolf said.

Dr. Najma F. Hamdani, a psychiatrist for the program, noted that in the midst of the physical health pandemic grows a mental health pandemic as well, and the goal is to lighten the anxiety some teens are feeling at this time.

The Benji Project began in 2016 following the death of 15-year old Benji Kenworthy. It aims to connect teens struggling with mental health issues to adults, who can teach them coping mechanisms during stressful times in life.

Questions from teens or parents can be directed to teacher Teresa Shiraishi at 360-821-1960.

For more information about the Benji Project, see www.thebenjiproject.org.

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Ken Park can be reached at kpark@peninsuladailynews.com.

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