Montgomery County Public School’s Youth Mental Health First Aid training is an eight-hour course designed to build mental health literacy giving adults the skills to help young people who may be developing mental health problems or experiencing a mental health crisis.
“It’s like CPR,” Jen Baldwin, YMHFA program coordinator with Montgomery County Public Schools said.
“It emphasizes what is typical in adolescence. What we tell people what that really looks like. Their brains are still forming. We dive into what is typical. For instance, mood swings, but when is it starting to impact every area? If they don’t want to do homework that’s one thing, but then if then they don’t want to do soccer, or come out of their rooms, that’s something else.” Baldwin said.
In the throes of physiological, emotional, and behavioral changes, teens can be moody and worried. While most young people have positive mental health experiences, one in five has a diagnosable mental health disorder according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health data.
When left untreated, mental health disorders can have life-threatening consequences. Depression, the most common mental health disorder, affecting nearly 9 percent of young Americans every year, other mental health disorders, and substance abuse are major risk factors for suicide, the second leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds.
Children between the ages of 10 to 14 are more likely to die from suicide than in a motor vehicle accident according to HHS research.
In response to these data, a national program was launched in 2013, that has so far trained thousands of front-line family members, teachers, hospital staff, employers and business leaders, faith communities, law enforcement, and the general public to identify and respond appropriately to the mental health of adolescents helping first-aiders to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness.
“We emphasize to our first-aiders: you are not a diagnostician, you’re simply there to notice the signs or symptoms. We talk about basic calming skills, being present and listening is so important,” Baldwin said.
Here in Montgomery County, MCPS was one of only three localities, with Pulaski and Fairfax Counties, to receive the Project AWARE grant. In its third year, the program, has trained 300 adults, mostly teachers, but also faith-based community members and coaches.
One reason Montgomery County won the grant was their already well-developed awareness of the need for mental health awareness, the fragility of support structures, and ideas about solutions.
“We were fortunate to have someone who was working in the divisions and with parent-teacher organizations hearing a need for mental health support and access to services. Access to services is a continuing gap because folks need it but they don’t get connected either because they don’t have transportation or some other reason. The training is a way to see need and respond to the need,” Baldwin said.
Like physical first aid, youth mental health first aid training is shown to make people feel more comfortable managing a crisis situation.
“Listening is key. Use as few words as possible. Sometimes people are not ready to talk, but sometimes somebody saying something is so important to connecting. Getting them to a place where they feel safe and reconnect to their abilities to manage and work through the situation and connecting them to services. Sometimes it’s just talking to a student and recognizing all the possibilities available,” she said.
An important, subtext of the program’s larger effort is retraining societal perceptions of mental health.
“People didn’t talk about mental health problems. There’s a lot of stigma attached to it. People don’t even reach out to service. People didn’t used to talk about cancer. Now, it’s an open conversation. People are “brave” and “courageous” and you need to talk about it. It is so common,” she said. “In the same way, it’s not uncommon for young people to need help, to think they’re the only one to think this way or feel this way, but others can reassure a young person that they’re not alone, that they can be healthy and happy. It was very different. Not to say people just talk about everything, but they can talk about this now,” she said.
Trainings began in August. The recent November training reached parents and the faith-based community including a children’s minister from Belmont Christian Church Christiansburg.
To assess the program’s progress, Baldwin’s office surveys every attendee asking very broadly whether they have you helped a youth, connected them to a service or to a person that can help them.
“What we’re seeing right now is that people are just more aware, that a quiet kid with his head on the desk isn’t just quiet, or tired. What we’re seeing is a greater awareness emphasizing “Say something” and attempting to make a human relationship.”