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Hands to Heal GA raising funds for program to help youth cope with stress, anxiety

SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. (Atlanta Now News at 10) – Reports show kids returning to school are dealing with more mental health issues than ever, and a local non-profit is launching a program to provide some relief.

Kendall White, 15, is an athlete at Norcross High School and a client at Medical & Sports Massage, where Denise Leslie, the founder and CEO of the practice, has provided therapy for pain and stress for 10 years.

"I train a lot as an athlete, and I recognize that recovery is definitely going to be a part of my development, and Denise has helped me with all my aches and pains in getting through sports and school," White said. "Balancing training for sports and all the schoolwork, especially with advanced classes, can be very stressful for students," she said.

Leslie provides mainly physical therapy for White, but she says there's an urgent need to address the mental health issues youth are facing. "The students that I see have an enormous amount of stress and anxiety, and it shows itself through fatigue, lack of focus, lack of personal hygiene," said Leslie.

She plans to do a stress and anxiety study on ten youth, between the ages of 12 and 24, through a year-long research program. Her non-profit, Hands to Heal GA, is raising $20,000 to provide these services at no cost.

"We're going to be teaching mindful meditation, we're going to be doing restorative yoga, and we're going to teach the students how to journal," Leslie said.

A CDC report released in March showed more than one-third of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, and more than 40% reported they felt persistently sad or hopeless.

School counselors and administrators witness the problems first-hand, including Keisha Gibbons, the assistant principal at Jean Childs Young Middle School in Atlanta Public Schools. "We're experiencing the whole gamut, from students having low self-esteem, to students that are having social skills issues," she said, explaining how the issues have a negative impact on their academics.

Gibbons helped launch The Den at Young Middle School to address the crisis by providing therapy, counselors and social workers.

Leslie says her program will provide additional options. "We're going to be able to show through this work that we're able to stabilize the symptoms and also get to the root cause of the trauma," she said.

School officials welcome more options. "When we have creative minds with innovative thoughts and resources, that is what's going to change the trajectory of what our students are experiencing," said Gibbons.

Hands to Heal GA hopes to meet its fundraising goal by December. For more information, click here.

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