Pilot program teaches teens first aid for mental health emergencies
South Albany High School sophomore Barbara Martinez said the teen Mental Health First Aid classes connected with her life. “It’s a really good experience for all of us as sophomores to understand what is going on in our lives and to make sure to help one other,” she said. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
A classroom of two-dozen South Albany High School teenagers practiced together, some with confidence, some barely whispering these words: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”
No one cracked jokes. No one smirked. Many there knew people who have faced depression, anxiety and addictions. Some had struggled themselves.
The exercise was part of a national pilot program that includes mental health training sessions. For three sessions, more than 300 South Albany High sophomores will work through what mental illness and addiction looks like and what they can do to help their peers.
“It feels like something like this could happen to each and every one of us,” said student Barbara Martinez.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Oregon 10- to 24-year-olds, according to the Oregon Health Authority, and the training focuses heavily on having students articulate how they might face a troubled friend.
Mental Health First Aid is a first-step approach to addressing Oregon students’ mental health needs, and the training also deals with addiction, stress and other issues.
An Oregon Education Association report said traumatized students needing more mental health support are creating a school crisis. The Joint Committee on Student Success, after talking with educators and the public all over Oregon, identified increased social and emotional supports as a top education priority.
The first aid training aims to destigmatize mental health issues and provide easy-to-understand information and a clear action plan to identify signs of mental illness, leading to professional help.
The U.S. government added the Mental Health First Aid approach, created in Australia in 2001, to its list of evidence-based programs for mental health interventions in 2013. The approach has spun off related programs targeted to specific communities and needs. It is intended to complement, not replace, more extensive professional mental health supports.
Greater Albany Public Schools’ South Albany is one of eight schools nationally testing one of those offshoots: teen Mental Health First Aid. The program wants to arm students age 15-18 with tools to help their peers so they don’t try to shoulder the burden alone.
The three 75-minute classes encourage discussion of how to respond in the moment and when and how to enlist help. The pilot program requires that 10 percent of school staff have taken Mental Health First Aid training so there is a ready supply of adults to assist teens.
Maria Gdontakis Pos, Mental Health First Aid project coordinator for Oregon, wants tenth-graders to receive the training so they can continue to benefit as juniors and seniors. Pos, of the Association of Oregon Community Health Programs, also helps coordinate Youth Mental Health First Aid, a similar program aimed at adults who interact with young people.
The first-aid program has been steadily growing since 2013. Pos said the Oregon project has trained 142 Youth Mental Health First Aid instructors. She estimates more than 6,300 people in Oregon have taken the training, about 1,300 of them school personnel.
The eight-hour training program focuses on how to help an adolescent age 12-18 in crisis or experiencing a mental health challenge. The training reviews unique risk factors for young people, shows how to identify warning signs and provides common vocabulary.
More than 15,000 districts nationwide have adopted the Youth Mental Health First Aid program; in Texas, all school personnel can take it for free. Participants memorize an action plan that includes assessing the situation, listening, getting help and offering support.
Deschutes County Suicide Prevention Coordinator Whitney Schumacher became a certified Youth Mental Health First Aid trainer in June 2018. She said area school districts are making it a regular part of their mental health approach because it is practical and easy to use.
Martha Hinman, Redmond School District executive director of student services, said the district is trying to train as many staff as possible.
“It gives people the tools to evaluate quickly: Is this an emergency crisis situation?” Hinman said.
The National Council for Behavioral Health, working with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, chose South Albany partly because of the district’s emphasis on student mental health supports. The district requires administrators to take Youth Mental Health First Aid training every five years.
Danette Killinger, prevention coordinator for the Linn County Alcohol and Drug Program, used a Project Aware community grant to bring the training to all of the county’s seven school districts, including Greater Albany. The grant included district reimbursement for substitute costs.
South Albany High School Counselor Jill Baker, who worked with Linn County to bring the training to schools, said it was particularly important at the elementary level, where administrators don’t have as many social-emotional support staff. She said the district liked that the program doesn’t go into depth but instead recommends leaving the real work to the professionals.“It’s just enough so that they can identify if this is a behavior issue or a mental health concern,” she said.
Baker said depression, anxiety and trauma are not just abstracts. Students are asked to fill out an “exit ticket” before leaving the teen sessions. After the first session, five said they needed someone to check on them within 24 hours and about 20 asked for a check back within a few days.
Student Charles Mitchell said he appreciated that the training touches on a range of student issues from high school stress to depression and substance abuse.
“Yeah, we see those problems,” he said, “but being able to act on them is important.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA