Shaney Andler: Tackling Youth Mental Health

By Candice Wagener | Photography by Hillary Schave, Shot on location at Madison Youth Arts Center (MYArts)

When Shaney Andler’s son Alex struggled with anxiety in seventh grade, she was shell-shocked.

“It came out of nowhere; my husband and I didn’t know what to do,” says Andler.

Alex eventually learned coping skills which empowered him to graduate college and face phobias like flying. “I don’t even know [all] the situations where he’s used these coping skills, but he has them perfected, in his back pocket,” says Andler.

These experiences inspired Andler to write a manual for young people — a 5×7-inch, 84-page book on coping skills named, appropriately, “Back Pocket Tools for Teens to Nurture Their Mental Health.”

“I’ve gained a lot of wisdom in this area. I just sort of compiled everything that I have seen work best for and with kids,” she says.

Andler has more than personal experience to draw on. She was a special education teacher for over thirty years; presently, she teaches kids in Meriter’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Hospital inpatient unit. She helps students with schoolwork and acts as a liaison between the patient’s teachers and counselors.

To increase the book’s impact, Andler developed a companion Back Pocket workshop for middle and high schoolers that is used by school districts. Her largest Wisconsin client is the Appleton Area School District. Outside the state, the workshop, which consists of five, 45-minute sessions and post-program refresher exercises, is taught in school districts in Pennsylvania, Missouri and Minnesota.

Her goal in the coming year is to implement the program in 100 Wisconsin schools and 50 nationwide. Andler estimates she’s about 25% there, projecting she’ll hit her target this summer. The Back Pocket workshop is also taught at Boys and Girls Clubs, hospitals and police departments in Wisconsin and beyond.

Ideally, kids learn the tools in early middle school so the program can be preventative, versus reactive. However, she has seen rising interest in the program materials with both high school and college populations.

She’s also mapping out a second book, for parents and caregivers, which she’ll publish this year. She’s collaborating with Alex to include his point of view.

“[It will include] what we did right, what we did wrong … I want it to be short and easy to digest and relatable.”

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