Can you recognize the signs that an adult or young person in mental health has?
They may be subtle, such as a change in eating habits, missing meetings or classes, avoiding eye contact, or keeping disturbed feelings to themselves.
One way to learn more might be a class in mental health first aid.
Despite its popularity among teachers, human services workers, and first responders, there are classes anyone can take — and peer coaching classes can educate young people to help their classmates and friends.
Basic first aid for mental health
Shrewsbury Youth and Family Servicesis a non-profit organization that provides counseling and other support services, and offers online and in-person classes. “Since the pandemic, we have had to do this ZoomKristen Morey, Executive Director of Youth and Family Services at Shrewsbury.
Nowadays, some organizations that offer mental health first aid classes offer in-person, online, or blended options. This week the organization offered training sessions for school district teachers at West Boylston Middle/High School.
Describing the classes this way, Morey said, “It’s not enough training for people to go out and make a diagnosis. It’s normal training,” describing the classes this way: “Here are the common mental health challenges we see. Here are some tools if you’re seeing someone who might be struggling.” .
Morey added, “It’s a lot like medical first aid…You’re at a football game, and there’s a player with a broken bone on the field. You’re not going to run out and reset that bone. You’ll call 911, and be there with the person as best you can.”
Coming to America
Originating in Australia in 2001, Mental Health First Aid made its way to the United States in 2008 through National Council of Mental Health. The Council developed a training and certification program for American participants through Missouri Department of Health And the Maryland Department of Health.
About 2.8 million people have been trained in the United States, says Tramin El-Amin, a customer experience officer with the US Mental Health Assistance Program.
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“It’s a full day’s training,” she said. “What we do is teach people to recognize the signs and symptoms of a crisis state, or perhaps a state of no crisis, in relation to mental health and substance use. In Massachusetts, about 40,000 people have received training, roughly divided between adult and youth mental health assistance classes.
“We initially started providing adult mental health first aid to help other adults. Then we saw a real need for adults to recognize the need in young people.”
Al-Amin said mental health first aid programs were developed for residents experiencing incidents of severe stress, including veterans, seniors, law enforcement and emergency responders — including firefighters and an emergency medical service technician.
Mental health first aid classes for workplaces have also been developed.
“We spend a lot of time at work, right? And so, it’s important for us to help people at work,” she said. How do managers, leaders, and co-workers support each other?
Spanish language version developed in 2014.
“Over the course of the global pandemic, many of us have been isolating and not talking to each other, maintaining a social distance,” Al-Amin said. “When does that shift from preventing harm to my physical health, and start affecting my mental health?”
The mental health needs of young people are rising
The youth category often attracts professionals who work with adolescents, including education professionals.
According to Morey, 50% of mental illnesses appear before the age of 14, and 55% before the age of 21. “We’re talking about normal adolescence – socially, emotionally, mentally – and the spectrum of behavior is very broad.”
Shrewsbury Youth & Family Services has been providing mental health first aid classes since 2015.
“We have trained nearly 5,000 teachers in Massachusetts,” Morey said. “Without hands, youth is the highest demand, given what happened to our youth. Schools are really overcrowded.”
Shrewsbury Youth & Family Services was among 32 organizations that participated in a pilot program of the Peer Support Curriculum, in partnership with Grafton High School To train 250 students.
Learn the signs and symptoms
Another organization that offers mental health first aid classes is Cambridge Health Alliancea network of health services serving Cambridge, Somerville, Malden, Chelsea, Winthrop and Revere.
Chelsea Henry, Youth Coordinator at Cambridge Health Alliance, described recent mental health first aid training for adolescents and young adults, including recent high school graduates, that is now accredited.
“It’s something they can put on their resume,” she said.
The exercises typically include several components, including a workbook, classroom training, and interactive activities, all geared toward recognizing the signs that someone may need help.
“What do you notice about this person? What signs or symptoms might not have been obvious from what they were displaying at the time?” For example, Henry said, “Maybe because that person is a little fidgety, and avoids eye contact—what that might mean for the person, to get them to think outside their bubble.”
One goal is to create youth mental health ambassadors.
“I will involve teens in their communities, and work to remove the stigma of mental health,” she said.
“Someone came up to me the other day and said, ‘Wow, I used mental health first aid.'” They used it for one of their friends. If only I could get one of them to accept it, and use it … For me, that would be a success.”
A headache can be more than just a headache
Eleanor Gearhart, School Coordinator at Elliott Family Resource Center in EverettTake mental health first aid lessons through Cambridge Health Alliance. It works with school districtas well Children and Families Section.
At the Elliott Family Resource Center, Gayhart took first aid training in mental health for adults and young adults.
“I think it helps most often with people who identify people’s fears. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, I have a headache’ — asking if anything else is going on,” she said.
“People do care, but they are stuck, and they don’t really know how to direct people. This program teaches you to be more aware, and to give support to people.”
Looking for a mental health first aid class?
To find a mental health first aid class near you, visit mindhealthfirstaid.org.