Mental Health Help

Appears in the July 2024 issue.

Program trains community members to aid youths in crisis

Hands holding a crocheted heart

When we think of first aid, we tend to envision a kit with Band-Aids to treat physical injuries. Sometimes, however, a health crisis isn’t a physical matter at all but rather a mental health one—just as serious but demanding tools from a completely different kind of first-aid kit.

This notion inspired a youth mental health first aid (MHFA) training program spearheaded by the Naperville-based nonprofit KidsMatter and coordinated with a range of community partners, including local school districts and other organizations. Developed by the National Council of Behavioral Health, the six-hour course is designed to teach educators, parents, and adults who work with kids how to better identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental distress or illness, including anxiety, depression, addiction, eating disorders, and trauma.

Since launching in late 2022, the program has trained more than 700 individuals, according to KidsMatter CEO and executive director Nina Menis, with more groups expressing interest and scheduling sessions every month. (KidsMatter also trains high school students in similar peer-to-peer skills through a separate teen MHFA program.)

Considering environments in which today’s kids are growing up, Menis believes the skills associated with mental health first aid are just as important as a medical kit. “Like physical health, mental well-being is related to physiological and environmental factors, such as lack of sleep, changes in brain chemistry, and social stress,” Menis explains. “The youth mental health first-aid program speaks of mental health in objective terms, which helps remove the stigma that is often associated with mental health challenges. The training gives participants the skills they need to reach out and provide initial support to children and adolescents who may be developing a mental health or substance-use problem and help connect them to the appropriate care.”

That last point is important—like traditional first aid, the goal of youth mental health first aid is not to provide a permanent solution but instead to address the immediate issue in a timely manner and point the individual in the direction of appropriate longer-term professional care. The key, Menis says, is for those who work most directly with youths to have the skills to be able to recognize the warning signs of potential mental health issues and to have the action plan necessary to deal with them, making sure kids know above all that someone hears them and understands what they’re going through.

“We have made more progress so far with the program than we ever anticipated, and the participants have been very grateful,” Menis says. “One student [in the teen program] shared that it was his favorite class over the last year and that he had already connected three friends to a caring adult.”

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Five Steps of Mental Health First Aid

The process taught in youth mental health first-aid classes revolves around this basic course of action:

1. Approach and assess for risk of suicide or harm. Try and find a suitable time or place to start the conversation with the person, keeping their privacy and confidentiality in mind; alternatively, encourage them to talk to someone they trust.

2. Listen nonjudgmentally and empathetically, allowing the person to share and be heard without interruption.

3. Give reassurance and information. After someone has shared their experiences and emotions, be ready to provide hope and useful facts.

4. Encourage appropriate professional help—the earlier someone understands their options and gets help, the better their chances of recovery.

5. Encourage self-help and other support strategies, which can include identifying a support network, taking advantage of programs within the community, and creating a personalized emotional and physical self-care plan.


Photo: iStock