Could you recognize signs an adult or young person is struggling with mental health?
They might be subtle, such as a change in eating habits, missing out on meetings or classes, avoiding eye contact, or keeping troubled feelings to themselves.
One way to learn more might be a class in mental health first aid.
Although popular with educators, human services workers and first responders, there are classes anyone can take — and peer-training classes can educate youth to help classmates and friends.
Basic mental health first aid
Shrewsbury Youth & Family Services, a nonprofit organization offering counseling and other support services, provides classes online and in person. “Since the pandemic, we had to do it in Zoom,” Shrewsbury Youth & Family Services Executive Director Christine Mowry said.
Nowadays, some organizations providing mental health first aid classes offer in-person, online, or hybrid options. This week, the organization provided trainings for school district educators at West Boylston Middle/High School.
“This is not enough training for people to come out and make a diagnosis. This is really a layperson training,” Mowry said, describing the classes this way: “Here are the common mental health challenges we see. Here are some tools if you see someone who might be struggling.”
Mowry added, “Very similar to medical first aid … you are at a soccer game, and there’s a player injured, with a broken bone on the field. You are not going to run out and reset that bone. You are going to call 911 , and be there with the person as best you can.”
Coming to America
Originating in Australia in 2001, mental health first aid came to the US in 2008 through the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. The council developed the training and certification program for American participants through the Missouri Department of Health and Maryland Department of Health.
About 2.8 million people have been trained in the US, said Tramaine EL-Amin, client experience officer for the US mental health aid program.
“It’s a day-long training,” she said. “What we do is teach people to recognize the signs and symptoms of a crisis situation, or maybe a non-crisis situation, for mental health and substance use. In Massachusetts, about 40,000 people have taken trainings, roughly split between adult and youth mental health aid classes.
“We first started offering mental health first aid for adults assisting other adults. Then, we saw a real need for adults to recognize the need in youth.”
Mental health first aid programs were developed for populations with high stress incidents, including veterans, older adults, law enforcement, and emergency responders — including fire personnel and emergency medical services technicians, EL-Amin said.
Mental health first aid classes were also developed for workplaces.
“We spend a ton of time at work, right? And so, it’s important for us to help people at work,” she said. “How do managers and leaders and coworkers support each other?”
A Spanish-language version developed in 2014.
“Over the course of the global pandemic, a lot of us were isolating and not talking to each other, and keeping social distance,” EL-Amin said. “When does that shift from preventing harm to my physical health, and starting to affect my mental health?”
Youth mental health needs rise
A youth class often draws professionals who work with adolescents, including education professionals.
According to Mowry, 50% of mental illnesses have an onset before age 14, and 55% before age 21. “We talk about what is normal adolescence — socially, emotionally, mentally — and the spectrum of behavior is very wide.”
Shrewsbury Youth & Family Services has offered mental health first aid classes since 2015.
“We’ve trained almost 5,000 teachers in Massachusetts,” Mowry said. “Hands down, the youth is the highest demand, given what has happened to our young people. Schools are really overwhelmed.”
Shrewsbury Youth & Family Services was among 32 organizations that participated in a pilot for a peer support curriculum, partnering with Grafton High School to train 250 students.
Learning signs, symptoms
Another organization offering mental health first aid classes is Cambridge Health Alliancea health services network serving Cambridge, Somerville, Malden, Chelsea, Winthrop, and Revere.
Shelsea Henry, youth coordinator of Cambridge Health Alliance, described a recent mental health first aid training for teens and youth, including recent high school graduates, for which they are now certified.
“It’s something they can put on their resume,” she said.
The trainings typically involve several components, including a workbook, classroom training, and interactive activities, all geared toward recognizing signs that someone may need help.
“What do you notice about this person? What are the signs or symptoms that maybe are not obvious that they were presenting at the time?” For example, Henry said, “Maybe because this person is a little fidgety, avoiding eye contact — what that might mean for the person, to get them thinking outside their bubble.”
One goal is to create young mental health ambassadors.
“I am going to have the teens involved in their communities, and working towards destigmatizing mental health,” she said.
“One of them came up to me the other day, and said, ‘Wow, I used my mental health first aid.’ They used it for one of their friends. If I can get just one of them to be receptive to it, and use it … for me, that would be a success.”
A headache might be more than ‘just a headache’
Eleanor Gayhart, school liaison at the Eliot Family Resource Center in Everetttook mental health first aid classes through the Cambridge Health Alliance. She works with the school districtas well as the Department of Children and Families.
At the Eliot Family Resource Center, Gayhart took both the adult and youth mental health first aid trainings.
“I think it helps most often with people identifying people’s anxieties. Not just like, ‘Oh, I have a headache’ — asking if maybe anything else was going on,” she said.
“People care, but they’re stuck, and don’t really know how to direct people. This program educates you to be more aware, and to provide support with people.”
Looking for a mental health first aid class?
To find a mental health first aid class near you, visit mentalhealthfirstaid.org.