I am now a certified youth mental health first aider. Why? Because “you are more likely to encounter someone who is experiencing a behavioral health condition or crisis, than someone who is facing a physical emergency.”1)Trying to make mental health first aid as familiar as CPRThis is the foundation of Mental Health First Aid trainings–eight hour sessions with the goal of helping attendees determine when a person is experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis and to encourage intervention. The course was created in Australia in 2001 by Betty Kitchener, a nurse specializing in health education, and Tony Jorm, a mental health literacy professor. In 2008, Mental Health First Aid was brought to the U.S. and is operated by the National Council for Behavioral Health in partnership with the Missouri Department of Mental Health. The youth focused course followed four years later. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, more than 600,000 people have trained in Mental Health First Aid in the U.S. by over 9,000 instructors.
Last month, the Young Minds communications team attended a Youth Mental Health First Aid training in San Mateo County, curious to learn about what it takes to be a mental health first aider. We chose this training because it was specifically focused on children and young people–a population whose unique mental health needs often get ignored. The room was full of youth advocates–public health nurses, medical interpreters, counselors, and teachers.
The first half of the session was spent reviewing common mental health conditions that affect young people, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, as well as their signs and symptoms. Both of our trainers were energetic and knowledgeable, drawing from their personal experience working on crisis support lines, facilitating group activities, and breaking down mental health language in accessible ways.
In the second half of the training we dived into how to address those tricky crisis situations. For instance, how do you talk about suicide with a young person who is having suicidal thoughts? What is the protocol for handling a panic attack? How do you approach a young person who has grown abnormally introverted? All of these questions were answered with one acronym: ALGEE.
A: Assess for risk of suicide or harm.
L: Listen nonjudgmentally.
G: Give reassurance and information
E: Encourage appropriate professional help.
E: Encourage self-help and other support strategies.
We were then given time to role play and practice these five points in small groups using different scenarios. Extra time was given to having “the suicide talk,” which included asking a critical question: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
Overall, the course was informative and engaging. However, based off of my experience at my specific session, there are some concrete ways the training could be improved:
- Create a training for more experienced advocates
Having studied psychology in college and taken courses to develop my listening and facilitation skills, and having trained to work a domestic violence support line, most of what was taught at the training was content I already knew. That’s not to say that I am an expert in managing crisis situations. On the contrary, most mental health and domestic violence advocates I’ve worked with, even the most experienced, will be the first to say that you can’t know everything or always know the perfect thing to say or do. You’re always learning from the people you serve. The Youth Mental Health First Aid training was great in that it gave me another opportunity to brush up on my skills. However, I would recommend this course mainly for folks who don’t yet have the framework to distinguish between or identify mental health conditions, want to learn appropriate mental health language, and are not sure how to approach challenging mental health situations. If the goal is to reach people with more experience as well, I would suggest dividing the course in two in order to provide an “entry level” training and a “beyond the basics” training to fit different levels of expertise.
- Target people with limited background in mental health
Based off who was present at the training I attended, there may need to be a larger push to get people with no mental health background in the room. There weren’t enough of these people at my training. Most in attendance were like me; they had a lot of experience working within the mental health sector. I left wondering if this is the standard group of participants for other courses. I would imagine that people with limited knowledge on mental health conditions and intervention techniques are the audience the Mental Health First Aid program would want to engage.
- Give more time for crisis intervention role playing and scenarios
I would suggest spending less time going over specific mental health conditions and more time developing and polishing intervention skills. I would have liked to have had more time to practice using ALGEE with different scenarios and groups. The interactive component of the training is the most powerful part, and polishing these newfound skills should be the priority of the course. Our trainers repeated that, unless we are licensed mental health professional, we are not in a position to diagnose anyone. Given this reality, maybe less time could be allocated to examining the specific symptoms of different mental health conditions.
Suggestions aside, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of this effort to demystify mental illness and treat mental health crises with the same urgency as a physical crisis. Overall, I believe the Youth Mental Health First Aid training is a constructive introduction for those not already involved in the mental health world, and a meaningful effort to destigmatize some traditionally taboo conversations. If the training sounds like a good fit for your experience level, I encourage you to find a training near you.
NOTE: The views and opinions shared by individuals on our blog do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Young Minds Advocacy.
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