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The Importance of teen Mental Health First Aid

I have been a counselor for 15 years and have watched teens struggle with anxiety and depression. I have lost students. When you become a school counselor nowhere in your training do they tell you that you will lose students, that you will love them with all your heart and know them to the core and they will die. Some will even take their own lives.

Watching these amazing students struggle with mental health problems is by far the toughest part of my job. I have helped many students during the past 15 years, but there were always some that I didn’t realize were struggling. My building has 1,900 students and just five counselors. We don’t see our students every day and some students don’t feel comfortable reaching out to us. Some of them do not tell their counselor they are having problems, but they tell someone, usually a friend. That is why teen Mental Health First Aid is so important. I truly believe it will save lives.

When I was asked by my counseling director to help apply to be a pilot school for teen Mental Health First Aid, I immediately said yes. I was trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid and thought it was relevant and important information all adults working with youth should be trained to know and use. I was excited to see what the teen Mental Health First Aid pilot was about and what it could do for our students at Kickapoo. I did not know at the time it would become the most important work I have done in my entire career.

After being trained and learning the curriculum I realized this was going to change the lives of our sophomores who would be trained. The curriculum is engaging. It teaches students what a mental health crisis is and specific steps they should follow to help a friend in a crisis situation. The training also seeks to alleviate the stigma of mental health struggles and starts the conversation about mental health with our students by comparing it to physical health and really emphasizes the similarities. tMHFA empowers students to take action and help a friend. It allows them to see that students experiencing mental health problems can get better and there are many adults who can help them. After we became Instructors, I couldn’t wait to share the training with our students.

We worked extra hours to study and prepare for our training. We were passionate about the training and wanted our students to love it as much as we did. The day before our first training we were nervous. After all, we were training a group of sophomores based solely on an alphabetical list; they had not signed up and they weren’t told much about it.

When you train adults in Youth Mental Health First Aid, they volunteer to train. They have chosen to be there and are interested in the training. This was not the case for our teens. Every sophomore was invited to a training whether they were interested in mental health or not. I’m pretty sure I didn’t sleep at all the night before. We were one of only eight schools chosen and this had to go well. The next morning we had a full classroom of sophomores and began the training by establishing our norms. We asked them to put away their phones and stay engaged.

We could not have been more impressed with our students. They were engaged. They survived a whole day without their phones and didn’t even complain about it. They listened and participated. They loved the training as much as we did. They saw the importance of teen Mental Health First Aid and reported they would recommend it to a friend. Our students left feeling empowered. We had just given them the tools to help a friend and they all felt they would know what to do if their friend was in a mental health crisis or was experiencing mental health problems.

That was our first training. We trained 17 more groups and the majority of students reported the same feelings as they left the training. Even students who typically misbehaved in class were engaged in the training. We couldn’t have had a better result.

Since the training we have noticed more students have been reporting concerns about their friends who are struggling. We believe tMHFA has had a significant impact on our sophomore class and we will continue to train our sophomores. I believe teen Mental Health First Aid should be implemented in every high school. Our teens are struggling and we need to help them. We need to educate them about mental health and stop this epidemic of depression and suicide. We need teens to take mental health seriously and report to an adult any time their friends talk about suicide.

A couple years ago I lost one of my students to suicide. He was funny and kind. He was a star football player. He spent nine weeks in the counseling center as an office worker and none of us knew he was struggling. Many of the students, however, did know. In my heart I believe if we had this training and those kids would have been certified in teen Mental Health First Aid, they would have told us. They would have believed him and worried less about him being mad and more about him being alive. I promised his mother we would continue to talk about mental health and suicide.

This is a huge step towards saving our teens’ lives. I’m so thankful we were chosen as a pilot site and believe this training will be a game changer for many of our students.

Amy Moran is a teen Mental Health First Aid Instructor and counselor at Kickapoo High School in Springfield, Mo.