Mattleman, Needham’s consummate listener, talks

Jon Mattleman in his Needham Youth Services office. Mattleman will soon conclude his 24-year tenure with Youth Services.

By Stephen Press
Hometown Weekly Staff

The first feeling one receives upon walking into Jon Mattleman's Town Hall office in Needham is one of comfort and ease.

The warmth of the Needham Youth Services (NYS) staff, the physical arrangement of the space itself, and especially Mattleman's inquisitive, amiable tone all contribute to an overwhelming sense that the upcoming interaction will, in fact, be all about you.

Which, for a reporter so accustomed to the opposite dynamic, can be quite pleasantly jolting, if a little confusing. I am, after all, here to interview Mattleman, not the other way around.

Still, apparently not even the most reticent of writers are immune to the ease with which conversation seems to flow in the NYS offices; after a genial greeting, our chatter lingers around shared interests in sports and culture, my own personal comings and goings, and life in general before he accedes to speaking about himself.

Not that any of this should come as a surprise.

One gets the sense that Mattleman, who has been at the helm of Youth Services for 24 out of the 50 years of its existence, has built the successes of his tenure on his gift for active listening.

This interaction, though, is wholly different from most of those Mattleman has come to expect from his years in NYS. This is something of an exit interview, as he will be stepping down from his position at the conclusion of the school year.

To say the least, it will be an adjustment for everyone involved.

"The enormity of it hasn't hit me," Mattleman readily admits, "but it's starting to. It's hard to make sense of it. For 24 years, you do something, then you don't do something; I think my car can drive itself from [my home in] Belmont. It's hard.

"I'm not sure what's next for me," he continues. "I know that I do a lot of speaking around New England. I do a talk called 'The Secret Life of Teens.' I do a lot of training for professionals and parents around depression and suicide. I'll be doing more of that. But I don't have a plan, except for I love to work, and I have to work - so I know I will be working.

"I don't have a definitive plan. I know I want to stay in the field. My wife said to me recently: 'Just take the summer off and relax.'

"And I said, 'Do you know me? You've known me since 1975. Is that a possibility?'

"She said, 'Oh yeah, I forgot.'

"I am both excited about it and not sure about it. I think part of this next chapter for me is a little bit of floundering and figuring out who I am and what I am."

For Needhamites, the question of "who is Jon Mattleman?" has a simple answer. Mattleman is the Youth Services director, having stewarded the program through nearly half of its existence. He is the enthusiastic advocate of the town's children and adolescents. He is the even-tempered parental counselor and confidant.

So, what's the difference between that and the private citizen?

"You know, there's a lot of congruency. People who see me at work - that's who I am," he says, pointing out that he doesn't really put on a "work face" for his daily Youth Services interactions.

"Outside of work, I guess the first thing I'd say is that I adore my wife. That seems funny to say, but I do. This stage of life, even though she's terrified of me being home," he says with a laugh, "I'm really looking forward to being home."

"A lot my life here is my life at home. They've kind of become one and the same. This started out to be a job when I first began here. This is really my life. I have cried a lot of tears about leaving Needham.

"When I announced it, when I got home, my wife was so excited. She said, 'This is amazing. Let's go out to eat and celebrate.'

"And I said: 'I'm feeling very melancholy.' It's not like I'm joyous about leaving. I just think it's a good time to leave. When you're sixty - I'll be 61 by the time I leave here - there should be a law in Massachusetts that you shouldn't be a youth director.

"I don't have an ego. Let someone else come in here and do a really great job in different ways from me.

Ego or not, individuals like Mattleman do not grow on trees. The position of Youth Services director is not for the faint-hearted, in large part because of the emotional investment it requires.

"If you're really a good clinician, you're really listening, and that can impact you," Mattleman states. He is quick to acknowledge the emotional rigors that come with his line of work. "At the end of the day, when you go home from this job, you can feel sad or overwhelmed. When we had all the completed suicides about a decade ago, I'll be honest with you, on many rides home, I was in tears. It was so overwhelming to talk to these families - these moms, these dads, these friends who lost someone - to try to make sense of it, help them make sense of it, and help myself make sense of it.

"These kinds of jobs are really tricky, because you want to be empathetic enough and be present enough, and not be overwhelmed, but you're only human. You have to be overwhelmed. This is not just 'Oh yeah, well, it's too bad for them and my life is better.' This is really difficult.

"I remember one client who was crying about something, and I was teary. And I said to him: 'Let me explain why I'm teary. I'm so moved by what you're saying, and I am your therapist, but I'm a person here, too.' It's important to be real.

It becomes apparent that that presence, that realism, is central not only to the way Mattleman approaches his work, but to his own ethos, as well.

"I never minded the intrusion of a call, or an email, or a text on the weekends," he confesses. "You have to love your job to do this well. And loving it means, yeah, you're not always [separating work and free time] with these thick lines."

He relates a story of receiving an emergency text message on a Saturday from a client, to which he immediately responds with a phone call, despite having plans for an imminent weekend getaway.

"It didn't feel like a chore," he says. "Not in the least. It's just what it is.

There is balance, though, to Mattleman's story. For as often as NYS has ministered to Needham's children and parents in times of crisis, it has also made a point to celebrate their myriad positive accomplishments.

"I remember someone called me from the Business Association," he recounts. "And they said some youths had taken a lighter and singed one of the benches, and I should do something about it. So I met with them, and I said 'What do you want me to do?'

"I'm in the meeting, and I said: 'You know, it dawns on me that most kids, most of the time, are doing really great things. So we can talk about remediating this problem in some way, but how about this: let's try to highlight the great things that kids are doing.' And that's where the RAY of Hope program was formed, where we said, 'Let's recognize a youth, and let's accentuate what they're doing well.'"

Youth Services has also managed to stay proactive rather than reactive.

"Needham Unplugged," an awareness campaign focused on moderating electronic device use, for example, "was created because my own kids were doing way too much screen time, and I said 'We've got to do something about this.'"

He then grows more philosophical as he moves from the individual programs to Youth Services as a whole. "I think that the challenge is to really continue to give resources to Youth Services and to continue to go at it," he says. "If you are going hard at it, then you can deal with the crisis, you can avoid a crisis, and you can help the community grow. I think that's what it's all about."

It also entails looking below the surface.

"I say to parents: 'It's much more important what they say than what you say.' Not every moment is a teachable moment. It's much more important to understand what your kid says, or understand that everything they do, they do for a good reason, to them. So their drinking, drugging, suicidal thoughts - it makes sense to them. It doesn't make sense to us as parents, but it does to them.

"When a kid comes home and says 'I want to kill myself,' a parent, well meaning, might say 'You don't mean that.'

"But here's a better response: 'Tell me more.'

"You drive through Needham, it's a beautiful town - they've redone buildings, they have beautiful fields - but within those homes, we know that instances of drugs, aclohol, and self-harm/suicide are actually higher in suburban communities than urban communities. It looks pretty and it is pretty, but every home has a story. Every home knows someone who deals with a kid who's so anxious, he can't get to school. Or a young woman who is so depressed that she's thinking of hurting herself. We camouflage it better in communities like this because we can, but it doesn't mean they don't exist. Part of it is understanding that dichotomy and understanding that we're economically healthy, but let's talk about the mental health."

"I think one of the jobs of any director is to get out there and let people know. That's not a scare tactic - that's not what I'm talking about. It's just to really inform people where it's at. The parents who live it every day, get it. But it's everyone else who really needs to understand it, too, to support that."

He stops a moment to put things into perspective.

"Let's pretend … I'm running a program, and there are 75 people in the crowd, and I say: 'Everyone put up your hand if you have broken a toe, a finger, an arm, a leg, a nose, or someone in your family has.' Everyone's hand is going to very willingly go up. 'Raise your hand if you've ever dealt with depression or anxiety that's ever been crippling for you,' [it's a different story].

"Part of this thing is just talking about this stigma, saying 'It's okay.'

"I think that I help people to talk about these issues.”

Soon, Jon Mattleman will conclude his productive tenure at Needham Youth Services, leading him into a personal moment of uncertainty, albeit a welcome one.

One thing seems abundantly clear, though, as we shake hands and part ways: whatever he does next, he'll keep listening.

For more information about Needham Youth Services, visit www.needhamma.gov/youth. For more information about Jon Mattleman and his consulting work outside of NYS, visit www.jonmattleman.com.

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