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Give Teens Permission to Talk About Mental Health

I first heard about teen Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) late summer of 2018. The National Council had introduced a collaboration project with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation and was piloting the program across the country. As a manager at North Texas Behavioral Health Authority in Dallas, I was immediately intrigued by the opportunity to get involved.

It was refreshing to hear stories about the students who went through the original pilot program. It changed their perspectives about mental health, gave them a voice to talk about what was happening in their lives and enabled them to help friends who were struggling.

I met with one of my local school districts to see if it was willing to partner with me to apply for the extended pilot program. The school district was on board, so we applied.

I will never forget the day I found out we were accepted! I was sitting at Sonic after ordering a Dr. Pepper. The moment I read the email, I started crying like a baby. I couldn’t believe it.

Close connection

There is a reason this is extremely personal to me. My passion runs deep, not only for Mental Health First Aid, but especially the teen program.

When my youngest daughter was a freshman in high school, we went through a suicide intervention with her. Through lots of hard work, mental health and safety became something we could talk about together. I wanted to spread the knowledge we gained to other students who struggled like my daughter did. Enter teen MHFA.

There is good news and bad news when it comes to our pilot program. Unfortunately, thanks to the pandemic, we were unable to complete our pilot at Forney High School. We had 453 students assigned to six sessions. It was a grueling task, but we were ready to start classes upon return from spring break 2020. But we all know how the end of March 2020 turned out. The pandemic hit and no one returned to in-person schooling.

On the other hand, we did run a test class before spring break. I am so thankful we did!

We wanted to go through the curriculum, see how it was all going to flow and, most important, get feedback from students. We started with 12 students and ended with eight. This was a great cross-section of the student population.

In the first session, students were all separated around the room. A couple may have known each other, but no one really talked. By the third session, students were bringing their lunch to the classroom, moving around desks and sitting closer. They were talking.

By the last session, the students were sitting in a circle laughing and talking while eating lunch. It was amazing to watch the process. After the last session, I invited the students to come back the following week to offer feedback about the trial class, sweetening the deal with pizza. I was hoping one or two students would show up, but to my surprise they all came back! The power of free pizza, right?

I wish I could have recorded that short time we had together. I asked for their honest feedback. They told me what they liked and what wasn’t comfortable about the class. Overall, it was a positive, great conversation.

Something stuck with me that day. One of the young men asked, “Why are we just now able to talk about this stuff?” He felt like they needed permission to talk about mental health. Even though the students had friends in the school attempt and die by suicide, they still didn’t feel like it was something they could talk about. Until teen MHFA.

The power of teen MHFA

Teens need to be able to talk about thoughts and feelings. teen MHFA provides students the ability to talk about hard things. It gives them hope that, when they talk about it, there will be resources and help available.

Getting teen MHFA back into schools has been challenging since the pandemic. I have been trying to focus on youth-serving organizations. We had a class for an underserved neighborhood program in Dallas, and most recently a class with teens in the Hunt County Juvenile Probation program. In addition to our classes, we are partnering with the University of North Texas at Dallas to help deliver teen MHFA to its summer youth programs.

I love this course and look forward to continuing to offer it to schools and youth-serving organizations in the communities we serve.

Amy Sanders is with the North Texas Behavioral Health Authority (NTBHA) in Dallas. She has been an Instructor and program manager for Adult and Youth MHFA since 2014 and a teen instructor since 2019. NTBHA’s Mental Health First Aid Program has certified more than 3,000 Mental Health First Aiders.

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