When Jessica Smith started suffering from panic attacks, meditation and mindfulness practices helped keep her grounded amid the spiking anxiety and brain fog.
“When you’re having a panic attack, you don’t feel safe in your body or in your surroundings,” said Smith, a 29-year-old mental health advocate and social entrepreneur. “For me, a solution was to use meditation to go inward, to focus on my breath, and still myself to create that safety from within.”
She then started incorporating her faith into this practice by meditating on Christian scripture, particularly the Psalms.
“When the voice in your head is so loud and negative, you really need something to counteract that,” she said.
Now, she’s going to use what she’s learned about mindfulness to help benefit young people in Baltimore. Through her OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship project, the Mindful Ministries Collective, Smith will implement a train-the-trainer program to guide youth ministry leaders and other youth mentors at community organizations in the Greater Baltimore region on how to identify signs of mental illness and how to teach mindfulness practices. Giving these youth leaders this knowledge about mental wellness is particularly important, because when young people are experiencing mental health crises, they are more likely to confide in an adult they trust than to seek professional help.
Smith knows first-hand how important faith-based communities can be in a person’s life, but also how some churches can be reluctant to engage with mental health issues.
“The purpose of this project is to close the gap in knowledge for mental health resources in the faith-based communities,” Smith said. “I have a lot of experience growing up in the church, and mental health can be considered taboo. I want to close the gap for those who are struggling, to help them get access to tools they need to start that conversation and keep it going.”
Smith hopes the project will help address the growing youth mental health crisis in Baltimore City. According to the Baltimore Behavioral Health System, the rates of youth suicide are significantly higher in Baltimore than the rest of the state, and these rates have increased 30% in the last two decades. Furthermore, in 2017, about 32% of Baltimore high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless.
Throughout the 18-month fellowship period, approximately 20 youth leaders will be equipped to train 100 youth in various mindfulness techniques, coping mechanisms, and general mental wellness awareness. Over 85% of these youth leaders and youth identify as Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color (BIPOC).
“I’m really grateful for the time, space, the resources provided by the OSI fellowship to implement the project,” Smith said. “I’m able to take my love of connecting with the community and creating content that matters and in a way that heals people.”