During the vulnerable transition from childhood to young adulthood, many kids grapple with low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of adolescents between the ages of 13-18 live with a mental health condition. In fact, a recent study found that nearly 25 percent of teenage girls and almost 10 percent of teen boys suffer from depression by the age of fourteen.

When kids struggle, their emotional problems often unfold in the classroom, affecting their ability to concentrate and straining interactions with teachers and peers. Left untreated, mental health concerns can contribute to high school dropout rates. A 2001 survey conducted by the Department of Education found almost 50 percent of students age 14 and older with mental illness withdraw from school, and a recent study, published in the journal BMC Public Health discovered males with psychological disorders are five times more likely to quit attending school.

While educators often want to assist these students, many feel unsure of what to say, especially during a mental health crisis. But a community-wide intervention called Mental Health First Aid seeks to equip teachers, parents and caregivers with the information and skills they need to intervene during a mental health emergency.

MHFA training, referred to as “CPR for the mind,” teaches educators and caretakers how to recognize, understand and respond to signs of psychological distress. Educators across the country can receive “Youth” First Aid training, a unique version of MHFA teaching individuals how to recognize the psychological challenges that adolescents face.

“The course taught me how to get students the help they need, especially in an emergency,” says Tori Wardrip, an art teacher at Lewis and Clark Middle School in Billings, Montana.

Wardrip completed the training in June. The full-day course taught her several First Aid skills, including how to recognize the signs of a panic attack, psychosis and PTSD. She also learned how to assess for suicide risk by asking questions like, “Are you having thoughts of hurting yourself?” and “Are you in danger?”

Spreading the Word

Since 2013, more than 200,000 educators have been trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid, according to Betsy Schwartz, vice president of public education at the National Council for Behavioral Health; hundreds of middle schools, high schools and 27 state departments of education have implemented it. Schwartz says the results have been positive, resulting in $30 million in grant funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s (SAMHSA) Now is the Time Project AWARE grant initiative.

The initiative also has garnered support from pop star Lady Gaga, who wants to help break silence around mental health. In 2012, the singer and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta started the “Born This Way Foundation,” a nonprofit organization committed to raising awareness about mental wellness, especially for young people. Recently, the foundation partnered with the National Council for Behavioral Health to sponsor Mental Health First Aid training across the nation.

The program trains people how to support and de-escalate an emergency crisis by using a five-step action plan, called ALGEE, according to Schwartz. “ALGEE stands for assessing for suicide risk/self-harm, listening nonjudgmentally, giving reassurance and information, encouraging professional help, and encouraging self-help and additional support strategies,” says Schwartz.

She adds that educators and caregivers who participate in the daylong YMHFA training learn how to recognize risk factors and warning signs of youth mental health challenges. Individuals are also informed about the prevalence of mental illness among adolescents, learning how protective factors, like available mental health resources, can contribute to psychological resilience.

During training, YMHFA participants practice these skills by role-playing with each other. Similar to medical First Aid training, role-play mimics realistic emergencies, allowing people to rehearse what they might “say” and “do” in an actual mental health crisis.

While the training focuses on mental wellness, instructors also discuss topics, like bullying and attention difficulties, teaching educators how these behaviors contribute to mental health concerns, like depression, suicidality and eating disorders.

At Lewis and Clark, Wardrip has put her new knowledge to good use. Since completing the training, she has become the “go to” person for the faculty’s behavioral health questions, serving as a bridge between educators and counselors.

She’s also using her new knowledge to teach students how to look out for each other.

“This year, using my First Aid training, I plan to teach my kids how to recognize the signs of a mental health emergency. If a peer is in danger, I want them to know how to get help,” she says.

Additional Resources

A recent report, released by the “Born This Way Foundation,” found that even though adolescents value their psychological well-being, less than half are talking about their mental health. However, research shows teaching kids how to find psychological resources can make a world of difference, helping to break the shame and stigma that surrounds mental illness.

Schwartz says, educators and caregivers who participate in the daylong YMHFA training will learn five First Aid skills, including:

  1. Recognizing risk factors and warning signs of youth mental health challenges
  2. Understanding the prevalence of mental health conditions among young people
  3. Understanding protective factors that contribute to psychological resilience
  4. Learning the ALGEE five-step action plan
  5. Identifying community resources that can help support adolescents and their families

With support from the Born This Way Foundation, the National Council for Behavioral Health hopes to train 150,000 additional educators, parents and caregivers before the end of 2017.

Educators who are interested in setting up a YMHFA training can find courses here. See Lady Gaga and Prince William chat on FaceTime about mental health from earlier this year:

Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. You can find her @dr_fraga on Twitter.  

Spreading First Aid for Teens’ Mental Health by Training Adults to Help 17 November,2017MindShift

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor