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Youth Mental Health First Aid Teaches Adults How to Help Kids in Need

May 17, 2022

With rates of teen depression and suicide on the rise – as highlighted in a new PBS documentary by Ken Burns - parents and teachers are seeking tools to help youth in crisis more than ever. Youth Mental Health First Aid, offered at the Institute of Living (IOL) through the Family Resource Center, offers the class to provide adults the skills to approach adolescents about behavior changes that could signal mental health stress. Attendees come from around the country and include teachers, health teachers, parents and camp counselors, according to Patricia Graham, LCSW, clinical coordinator, Child & Adolescent Advanced Services for Adolescents with Psychosis (ASAP) Program at the IOL and coordinator of Behavioral Health Network Mental Health First Aid Program. Melissa Deasy, LCSW, IOL director of residential and ancillary services and one of the instructors, said a teacher once asked, “How can I ask a student if they want to kill themselves. I teach physics?” Deasy replied, “If you connect with your students, if you see them struggling, you need to ask them what is going on because maybe no one else will.” “The trainers work with people to break down stigmas and open up discussions,” said Laura Majidian, clinician, POTENTIAL Track, Young Adult Services at the IOL. The class discusses general categories of mental disorders, what depression or anxiety can look like, warning signs of crisis, how to ask questions and approach the topic with teens. The intent is to not diagnose, but identify symptoms and encourage appropriate professional help. The Mental Health First Aid class is based on ALGEE, a non-linear plan that helps people identify signs and symptoms, and stands for:

  • Assess for risk of suicide or harm.
  • Listen non-judgmentally.
  • Give reassurance and information.
  • Encourage appropriate professional help.
  • Encourage self-help and other support strategies.
Graham said the instructors hear anecdotally about increases in self-harm and disordered eating, and anxiety levels of students. The Burns documentary, which premieres June 27 and 28, features interviews with 20 people age 11 to 27 who live with mental health conditions and discuss their personal journeys. Although it can be hard to find a therapist, with waiting times for appointments, Graham said there are options at schools and through healthcare providers. Just offering to help starts to build relationships, Deasy added. “If you have a relationship with a child and notice differences in their behavior, then ask them what is going on,” she said, adding that the number one way to reduce a youth’s risk of developing a mental health disorder is having an adult they connect with. “Many adults feel helpless. They want to help, however they do not know how to help,” she said. “If you can be that one person to a youth, leave the door open, show you care about them and are concerned, that goes a long way.” The training can also help teachers talk to administrators about district policies, how they handle suicide prevention, whether they recommend students speak to school counselors or social workers or if they call 211 for assistance. “We also talk about self-care for [teachers] as well, how to debrief and talk about the situation while protecting personal information and local resources they can access for students and themselves,” Graham said. The course is typically $170 per person, but is free through the Family Resource Center. Youth MHFA is generally offered on Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Participants attend virtually after completing a two-hour, self-paced course. Once trained, their certification lasts for three years.