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Mental Health First Aid training offers tips & strategies

Sat, Mar 9th 2024 06:50 am

Part II

By Alice Gerard

Senior Contributing Writer

If a student were to fall during a track meet and sprain an ankle, it is highly likely the student would get help in the form of first aid. The type of first aid might include ice packs or compression bandages or elevating the ankle.

Sprained ankles are normal risks for athletes. They account for approximately 15% of all athletic injuries. They are visible, and an athlete is unlikely to resist treatment. It is normal for the athlete and the coach to seek out first aid for such an injury.

If a student were to experience signs of a mental health problem, would students and teachers, coaches and other adults recognize this as a problem that was as in need of first aid as a sprained ankle, a very visible issue that affects the basic skill of walking?

Teaching Grand Island Central School District staff to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health issues is the goal of Youth Mental Health First Aid. Training sessions have been offered to staff at each staff development day/superintendent’s day.

So that I could better understand this process, I was invited to be part of a training that occurred in Huth Road Elementary School on March 1. The instructors for this training were Felicia Pallaci, principal at Kaegebein Elementary School; and Missy Keem, school social worker at Kaegebein Elementary School and at Sidway Elementary School.

I learned that signs and symptoms of mental health issues are far subtler than those of a physical injury. Keem described some of the ways to recognize signs of mental health issues. These could include crying, withdrawal, loss of motivation, personal hygiene issues, changes in energy levels, moodiness, and an oversensitivity to comments or criticism. I also learned that mental health issues can appear at inconvenient times, such as in the middle of a sports match.

How can a coach respond in a way that is sensitive, but ensures that the game is able to continue without interruption?

I learned that mental health first aid is just that. First aid.

“We do not diagnose or treat ourselves or others,” Keem said. The goals are “to respect the privacy of youth and families, to serve as a vital link to early intervention, and to offer nonjudgmental listening.”

And, when necessary, offer the youth a “warm handoff” to a health care provider, such as school nurses, psychologist, social workers, and other counselors and therapists.

In certain cases, in which an adult sees signs of possible child abuse, anyone who is considered a mandated reporter is still required to make necessary calls to such people as CPS (Child Protective Services), which is tasked with protecting children from physical abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse in their home. Mandated reporters include hospital personnel, teachers, law enforcement officers, social workers and members of certain other professions designated by New York state, according to the Erie County Department of Social Services website (https://www3.erie.gov/socialservices/child-protective-services).


See also >> GICSD offers Youth Mental Health First Aid training to all district employees

I learned that, according to statistics taken before the COVID-19 lockdowns, one in five youths experience a mental health disorder that “significantly impacts their life.” I also learned that children as young as 6 could experience anxiety.

“We are seeing anxiety disorders more and more in elementary school,” Fallaci said.

Other mental health issues that can be observed in youth include mood disorders, eating disorders, behavioral disorders, and substance use disorders.

Mental Health First Aid encompasses five steps, called ALGEE. The first (the A) is to assess the situation. The adult might approach the young person and ask for a private chat. “Could we step out into the hall for a moment?” “I’m just checking in.” The adult needs to remember that “This is about the child, not you,” Keem explained.

The second step (the L) is to listen nonjudgmentally, by using “I statements,” such as “I hear you saying,” to validate what the youth has said. The best ways for a youth mental health first aider to approach a young person is by affording that young person privacy and a nonjudgmental listening ear. For example, an adult could say, “I’m here if you ever want to talk about anything” “I care about you.” “I’m here for you.” If you show that you are present with kids, “the kids feel that they are heard,” Keem said.

The third step (the G) is to give the young person reassurance and information. “Give hope with facts. Offer statements and comments that are factual and don’t belittle and demean the student,” Keem said.

The next step (E) is to encourage appropriate professional help, which comes in the form of a “warm handoff” to professional help that is available for students in school or in out of school settings. If the youth declines the warm handoff, it’s important to “remain friendly and open, to be patient, and to encourage the youth to talk with someone they can trust (a safe person),” Keem explained.

Telling a young person, “It’s OK to struggle, you never have to do it alone,” is one way to show support.

“It takes only one person to be a safe person in a school to be a difference,” Keem said.

She emphasized that anyone could need additional support at any time. This includes students who show no outward sign of struggling.

“It’s not always the typical person who shows a need for help who needs a safe person,” Keem said.

The last E is for encouraging self-care, which is necessary for both the student and the mental health first aider. Self-care could take the form of walking, running, journaling, reading, or anything else that encourages resilience and good mental health. With time not being linear – with memories of past events popping into our heads at random times – self-care is even more important for both the youth and the mental health first aider.

Being the victim of a bully, for example, could have long-lasting effects on self-esteem. Many years after the bullying happened, we may hear the bully’s voice in our heads, telling us that we are losers, that we aren’t smart, that we are unattractive, that we are not good enough.

I learned from my therapist that bullies can occupy your head rent-free for many years in the form of random memories and nightmares. I worked on evicting the bullies. But, when I was being bullied in middle school, asking for help was not encouraged. Being open about our own mental health was a sign of both weakness and lack of character. We were supposed to suck it up and power through it.

Attitudes are changing, however. According to an article titled "How Gen Z is changing the Conversation on Mental Health,” published by St. Bonaventure University in 2019, people born after 1996 are much more open about mental health issues than older individuals. This is seen as a positive step, a sign that mental health is a priority, and that mental wellness is valued.

In case of mental health issues that could potentially be life-threatening, people are advised to call 988. It is the nationwide suicide and crisis hotline. This hotline is also available via text at 988lifeline.org. In Buffalo and Erie County, help is also available through the crisis hotline at 716-834-3131. There is a Kids Helpline, which can be reached by dialing 716-834-1144.

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