The facts are striking:

  • 1 in 5 young people will experience a mental health issue severe enough to impact their ability to carry out their daily activities.
  • Mental health conditions like severe depression, anxiety, bipolar, or schizophrenia tend to manifest between the ages of 14 and 25, but it often takes 10 more years before a diagnosis is made.
  • Approximately 1 in 3 young people say they lack reliable access to resources to support their mental wellness or to address a mental health condition.*

An important way we can reach large numbers of young people is through schools. There are a number of programs for schools designed to reach teens and connect them to services they need. One such program is sponsored by a non-profit organization called Mental Health First Aid. They offer daylong trainings for a low fee or, in many cases, for free. MHFA designs these workshops for first-responders to signs of mental health crises, similar to CPR training.

I signed up for one of these all-day workshops on the topic of youth mental health and soon found myself surrounded by a mix of interested teachers, school health counselors, ministers, parents, and college students—people working with teens. It was a lively and motivated group. Two instructors presented information on how to recognize signs of mental health issues as well as signs of substance abuse. They stressed that without interventions, teens in this situation are more likely to fall into drug addiction, truancy, incarceration, or suicide.

The workshop soon became interactive as we broke into small groups and practiced putting ourselves into some of the scenarios we had talked about. In order to practice skills of communicating with someone during a crisis episode, we took turns at role-plays, which gave us a sense of what it would be like to interact with someone who may be under the stress of internal events or even be irrational. As we moved through these exercises, members of the class got to know each other better. In this setting, it was natural for people with first-hand experiences to share what they knew, and this added many real-life examples to what we were learning about together that day.

The trainers emphasized throughout that it was NOT our role to provide mental health services, but to handle the situation appropriately and then to direct the person to professional care. The accompanying booklet we received is a treasure trove of information and resources to be consulted in an ongoing way. The workshop definitely incentivizes school officials to put together their own list of community mental health service providers so they are ready. We came to understand how available safety nets need to be wide because a student’s out-of-line behavior could have multiple underlying causes. And often parents are as confused and frustrated as their kids about how to handle the difficulties they’re facing.

The main thing to retain is this: with the right help at the right time, young people and their families can be directed to find the treatment they need for a much better outcome.

For more information check out the website www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org and see if you can attend a workshop near you.

*“Youth Mental Health in America: Understanding Resource Availability and Preferences,” from bornthisway.foundation/youth-mental-health-in-america. Data comes from a survey of over 2,000 young people ages 13 to 24 in the United States in early 2019 by collaboration between Born This Way Foundation with Benenson Strategy Group.

Other data come from government sources (www.samhsa.gov/data/) and academic studies cited in Mental Health First Aid USA, the For Adults Assisting Young People edition (2016).

Photo credit: Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash