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Helping People: Why I Became a Youth Mental Health First Aid Instructor

When I was a child, I wanted to be a teacher so I could help people. I would play “school” with my siblings and use it as an escape from all the not-so-great life experiences I was going through. Even then, I knew teaching would always be part of my life in some way.

Throughout my childhood, I experienced what I now know were adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).  I remember my first encounter with a mental health professional as a child and they gave me homework. I was upset and didn’t understand why, so I decided I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t return to that counselor and kept living life without any additional professional support.

As I grew older, I began to learn more about myself and started experiencing challenges with my mental health. In college, I started to learn that my childhood experiences weren’t typical and with that self-awareness came some sadness and grief. I didn’t call it a mental health challenge at the time (because I didn’t really know what it was) but looking back, I now recognize the significant impact the awareness had on my overall functioning. I was, in fact, experiencing a mental health challenge and it was impacting my life.

As I grew professionally, I became even more aware of my own mental health. I recognized that some of my thoughts and feelings weren’t typical thoughts and feelings. I also learned that some of my mental health challenges were potentially related to my childhood. Once again, I sought out professional help to navigate my mental health. And thankfully, counseling was helpful and improved my overall functioning.

More than anything else, I have always wanted to help people both personally and professionally and I knew I wanted to be supportive to people – particularly to people who are vulnerable. So, I decided to study social work and become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in 2013.

Social work has opened a lot of doors for me, including the opportunity to educate my community about mental health, which brought me to Mental Health First Aid. I first became a Youth MHFA Instructor in 2015, and now am certified to teach Youth MHFA, Adult MHFA and teen MHFA to my community and peers.

Mental Health First Aid gives people the opportunity to learn kind ways to listen, how to approach people and how to assess for safety. This training provides an opportunity to learn about how to connect and be good neighbors to the people surrounding us in our communities. By becoming a Mental Health First Aider, you can recognize and appropriately respond to people experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge and get them to the help they need.

I truly wish Mental Health First Aid training existed for my circle of support when I was growing up. I think that if people knew the signs and symptoms of mental health challenges and knew how to get the right support, some of what I experienced may have been different. That is what I want to provide to other parents and caregivers and prevent for other children.

Although I am not a teacher by profession, I appreciate being able to teach and empower individuals with MHFA so they can support those around them.

I recently facilitated an Adult MHFA training and one of the participants said, “Everyone in this community should have this training.” I couldn’t agree more.

One in five people experience a mental health challenge. No one should ever have to go through it on their own. Get trained in Mental Health First Aid today and provide support to those who may be hurting in your community.

Jessica Smiley, MSW, LCSW, works in a community mental health center as project director and is the director of Youth Ministries at her church. She is a certified Youth MHFA, Adult MHFA and teen MHFA Instructor.