Mental Health First Aid turns adults into allies for teens facing tough times

Teens facing tough times in Bay County have about 40 new allies.

In March, nearly 40 people attended a Mental Health First Aid training, learning how to listen to teens as they discuss difficulties. Through the training, teachers, counselors, parents, and concerned adults learned more about mental illness, stigmas, and cultural barriers to seeking help.

Dr. Matthew Samocki, Executive Director of the Great Lakes Bay Region Mental Health Partnership initiative, says Youth Mental Health First Aid is a program that trains adults to help kids aged 12 to 18 find mental health resources.

Grants from the Bay Area Community Foundation and its Youth Endowment Fund funded the two-part training.

“It’s really critical for adults who work with youth to be able to have conversations with youth, so they can assess whether or not a child has a challenge or is potentially in crisis,” says Samocki.

During the trainings, the adults learned to listen in a non-judgmental way so they could offer advice “in terms of what it is they may be experiencing and also to be able to encourage potentially self-help and/or professional help.”

He explains Mental Health First Aid teaches people how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental health and substance use challenges for children. The training gives adults the skills to reach out and provide initial support to a teen who needs help. He says the training also deals with self-care for the person providing first aid too.

The first class was comprised of adults, but the goal is to offer additional training sessions to help teens understand how to help their peers.(Photo courtesy of the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance)Although the initial trainings were offered to just a handful in the community, Samocki says many more sessions are planned. Anyone who is involved with young people in any way can benefit from the training.

Aimee Allen, a special education teacher at Bay City Central High School, says the training is important not only to help her students, but also to help break down the stigma around mental illness.

As someone who struggled with her own mental health issues, she knows firsthand what it means to have someone be supportive and listen.

“I see the number of students that struggle with mental health,” she says. “Talking with our school social worker – the number of teens that talk about suicide, or have had suicidal ideation. I just think it’s very important for teachers to recognize those warning signs and to be able to guide teens in the right direction if they need help.”

When Allen faced her own difficulties as a teen, the stigma around asking for help had her suffering in silence.

“When I was in high school, one of my best friends was killed in a car accident, and my parents got divorced and there was just lots of anxiety and lots of trauma there,” she says.

“I turned to drinking a lot during my senior year of high school. That could have been the warning sign for my family to notice. I didn’t do that before, then I just started doing that because then I could forget the pain.”

In her case, no one noticed how much trouble she was having. She wants to help teens today find healthier ways to cope with tough times.

“I was there and I want to help so other students or other kids are not in that position – that there is another way to deal with that trauma other than with drugs or alcohol,” she says.

She says encouraging students and young people to talk about their concerns is important. She remembers being told “you’re fine,” when she was anything but fine.

“Letting these kids know that it’s OK to feel like this,” she says, adding that she also wants to offer something beyond assurances that feelings are normal. “It doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with these emotions, but how are you going to handle it and overcome that?”

She says it’s important, especially for teachers, to recognize warning signs and guide teens in the right direction.

“We can’t just brush them off. It could be something serious and they really need to talk to somebody. Being able to tell when it is significant and when you need to take it seriously. I’ve had students talk to me about harming themselves or depression or anxiety, and to me it’s important to be one of those people that people recognize the signs and help students to get the right support that they need.”

While the training is geared toward high school-age teens, many of the lessons learned also could apply to young adults.

Monica Hernandez-Alaniz, who is the Assistant Director of the Downtown Saginaw Center for Delta College and a professional counselor, says she sees the training is beneficial for more than just the high school kids enrolled in Saginaw Training Academy classes held at the Downtown Saginaw Center.

Hernandez-Alanis says the Downtown Saginaw Center serves a number of students from different backgrounds including Hispanic, Latino, African-American, Black, and Caucasian. Some cultures discourage talk about mental illness.

“They don’t want to recognize it or even acknowledge it and it can be in some cultures, shameful. It can be like, ‘You’re going to a counselor, what’s wrong with you?’ They immediately think you’re trying to kill yourself.”

That is rarely the case, Hernandez-Alaniz says. Through the training, people can begin to understand the complexity of mental health.

“I’m realizing that in our younger generation there’s a lot more of that anxiety from the isolation during COVID, and we’re reaping that, what they walked through,” she says.

One student related the isolation as “living in a state of fear.” She wasn’t suicidal, but she benefited from help, Hernandez-Alanis says.

Samocki says anyone can be part of the training process, and the trainers are all certified.

Once trained in Mental Health First Aid, the trainees can become instructors, he says.

In March, about 40 people went through training to learn how to connect teens with mental health resources. (Photo courtesy of the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance)“To become an instructor, you go through three full days of training. There’s lots of tests involved, there’s lots of activities involved, there’s sessions that you’re teaching, and you’re graded by your teachers and graded by your peers in the cohort, and then you need another minimum of 40 hours of preparation before you teach your first course. It’s quite involved to become an instructor, but it’s well worth it.”

Samocki says they are going through a granting process to make the training more affordable.

“We have a number of grants submitted that we’re waiting to hear back on, and we hope to have many more of the trainings this year.”

In 2023, Samocki hopes to begin offering Teen Mental Health First Aid Training to people aged 12 to 18. In the program, teens will learn how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental health and substance use challenges in their peers.

For more information about the Mental Health First Aid training sessions or to get involved, go to Samocki says information on upcoming trainings will be posted there and on social media.

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