AHA!: Building Teens’ Emotional Capacity During the Pandemic

BY JULIA NGUYEN | April 18, 2022

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one in seven young people aged 10-19 is contending with a mental health challenge like anxiety or depression. Drug or alcohol abuse, isolation, suicidality, and self-harm are all possible consequences when these challenges go unaddressed—and this is too often the case in the wake of the worst of the COVID pandemic, where mental health resources are straining under current demand.

Photo Credit: AHA!

Although awareness and acceptance of mental health disorders is at an all-time high, enough stigma remains around this topic to create difficulty for teens when it comes to voicing and/or identifying problematic thoughts and feelings. For the past 23 years, Healthy Attitudes, Emotional Harmony, and Lifelong Achievements for Teens (AHA!) has been working to break this stigma and make more help available to teens in Santa Barbara County.

Jennifer Freed, co-founder and Chief Content Officer of AHA! (Photo Credit: AHA!)

“AHA! started in 1999 as a movement to train teachers, adults, parents, and teens in social and emotional development, and as allies to defeat the ‘isms’,” says Jennifer Freed, co-founder and Chief Content Officer of AHA!. “We want to be up-standers rather than bystanders—to teach ourselves and students to confront and defeat prejudice wherever we find it in ourselves and others…to truly be allies to one another, to truly be one whole community where everybody gets to be safe, seen, brave and contributing.”

AHA! strives to make a lasting impact on a young person’s life through social-emotional learning (SEL). SEL supports youth in developing healthy identities, managing emotions, and showing empathy for others. AHA! provides many youth programs that practice SEL, including in-school programs like AHA! Peace Builders and 10-week, once-weekly SEL programs delivered in classrooms, as well as after-school groups like Ally Group, Creative Group, and Sing It Out!.

Roxanne Petty, AHA! Executive Director (Photo Credit: AHA!)

AHA! Executive Director Roxana Petty has been at the helm since 2020, working throughout the pandemic to continue services via Zoom as schools went virtual for nearly the full school year. The Santa Barbara Foundation helped AHA! to continue and expand their services with a Behavioral Health grant. As a result, AHA! was able to provide therapy, workshops, and in-school and after-school programs for teens. They were also able to expand services to their equally stressed adult counterparts—first, on Zoom, and then back in person when CDC guidelines allowed.

Photo Credit: AHA!

“We often hear that people in need of therapy are ending up on waiting lists, so we decided to do something about that,” shares Roxana. “We have been providing free therapy for our teens for many years…this year, we decided to offer it to parents and educators as well, because the need is so great. We’re so excited to be able to provide our community with these resources. We are now taking in new clients, and we’re super excited to connect them with the right people.”

Photo Credit: AHA!

During the worst of the pandemic, teens were drastically affected by the sudden shift to virtual learning and social distancing. “We had so many teens who reached out who needed extra care and support,” says Jennifer. “Funding from the Santa Barbara Foundation has been instrumental to us in maintaining needed staff over the course of the pandemic. It helped us to serve more people—by about a third—rather than having to shrink…and this was a truly good thing, because the need for what we do has been deep.”

In March, the AHA! Peace Builders program gathered 69 eager junior high and high school students together to connect and explore ways to be active allies in their communities. “The high schoolers contributed by hosting the junior high students and teaching them leadership skills,” she shares. “It was a beautiful thing to witness seeing them grow and learn together.”

Photo Credit: AHA!

To learn more about AHA! and their programs, visit