Youth Mental Health First Aid Training Program

for Brooklyn Paper
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Have you ever heard someone say “There’s something off with that young guy” or “All of a sudden she’s acting especially anxious?” Many times those observations are just left at that – an observation.

Consequently, a youngster who is suffering from a mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety or other mental health illness isn’t getting the help they need. Now, with the Youth Mental Health First Aid training program, all that is about to change.

The Situation

Patricia Kemp, LCSW, assistant executive director of Clinic-Based Services at Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS) and Nanci Kennedy, LCSW, director of WJCS Yonkers School-Based Clinics – and the first local person who received training in the nationally recognized, evidence-based Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) certification course – are determined to help remove the stigma of mental health and help youngsters get the help they need, when they need it.

“There is a general fear of mental health,” says Kemp, “but we are working to encourage people that they can handle mental health issues.” Kennedy agrees, “It’s all about mental health literacy,” she says.

In New York, more than 300,000 youth are living with a serious mental health condition that significantly affects their daily functioning. And according to the National Council on Mental Health statistics only 40 percent of people that need it are getting mental health treatment at any given time.

“We aim to bring communities and individuals the information and skill building they need so they can act to help those with mental illness,” says Kemp.

And it is critically important. The second leading cause of death for ages 14 to 24 is suicide.

Let’s Change It

Two years ago, WJCS, Westchester County and its Safer Communities Initiative spearheaded the launch of the YMHFA training program in our county. This program equips non-healthcare professionals, including parents, teachers, school personnel, youth leaders, camp counsellors, law enforcement officials and others who regularly interact with children, with the tools to recognize and respond to youth experiencing mental health challenges or crises.

So far more than 1,000 individuals have been trained, and WJCS is part of a national movement – the “Be 1 in a Million” begun by the National Council for Behavioral Health – to train 1 million mental health first aiders in the U.S. by 2020. “We are looking to bring help to those with mental health to a grass roots level,” says Kemp.

The Program

The program doesn’t train lay people to make a diagnosis or act as a therapist or doctor, but being knowledgeable in mental health first aid, sort of a CPR for mental health, helps them recognize challenging situations, safely de-escalate them and to help connect individuals with care and avert crises. “You are taught how you can apply mental first-aid and immediate assistance to someone during their mental health crisis until the issue is resolved or the individual gets treatment,” says Kennedy.

The YMHFA training is an eight-hour, evidence-based course taught by certified instructors. It is listed on the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices and multiple studies and peer-reviewed journal articles have reviewed its effectiveness.

The training covers mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, psychosis, substance use problems and eating disorders. In addition, crisis situations such as suicidal thoughts and behaviors, non-suicidal self-injury, panic attacks, traumatic events, severe psychotic states and aggressive behavior are covered. “The program teaches you a five-step action plan on what to notice and do to help youngsters cope with a potential mental health crisis,” says Kemp.

The importance of the training is also recognized by legislators and gaining support. In addition to the Mental Health First Aid Act of 2015 (S. 711/H.R. 1877) which authorized $20 million for Mental Health First Aid, in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, 21 states introduced or considered legislation or appropriations for Mental Health First Aid.

In New York, Senator Jesse Hamilton and Assemblyman Marcos A. Crespo’s bipartisan Mental Health First Aid Bill (S6234A) is intended to create a continuing education requirement for teachers relating to mental health issues.

Effectiveness and Applications

Maria Imperial, CEO of the YWCA White Plains and Central Westchester, says her staff rated the training as among the best they’ve ever had.

Briarcliff High School Principal Debora French, who signed up for the training and brought three guidance counselors, says “The Youth Mental Health First Aid course is necessary and critical for people working with youth. It provides concrete and purposeful guidance and I foresee using it as a parent, family member, friend and volunteer or mentor. I definitely recommend it to others.”

YMHFA-trained Myra Harris, says that a day after receiving her certification, her 22-year-old son’s friend was experiencing a crisis and through coaching her son on how to respond, they were able to contain the situation and assist his family in getting professional help. Thanks to applying the skills taught in YMHFA, the young man is now receiving counseling, responding well in therapy and continually expresses his gratitude for their help.

WJCS also is leading and coordinating training for Northern Westchester-Putnam BOCES, which is overseeing a two-year federal grant to deliver Youth Mental Health First Aid Training. A YMHFA trained teacher in the BOCES program reports that there was a child who was having a panic attack. Because they had training, the teachers pulled out their mental health training manual, turned to the chapter on anxiety and helped the student identify their feelings and gain control of the situation before it escalated.

Sign Up Now

With training, others can also assist youngsters in similar situations. Sign up for the YMHFA training program and get certified now. Contact Jan Fisher, director of WJCS Public Affairs, to arrange for a Youth Mental Health First Aid Training at 761-0600, ext. 343 or jfisher@wjcs.com.

WJCS is one of the largest non-profit, non-sectarian human services agencies in Westchester. WJCS, 845 North Broadway, White Plains. 761-0600. www.wjcs.com.

Jean Sheff is editor of Westchester Family.

Mental Health Disorders in Youth

•Approximat­ely 20 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 (or 1 in 5) either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder.

•One-half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14.

•Almost one-half of youth ages 8 to 15 with a mental illness received no mental health services in the previous year.

•Despite effective treatment, there are long delays – sometimes decades – between the first appearance of symptoms and when people get help.

Updated 1:02 pm, June 28, 2017
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