The last scheduled class for Teen Mental Health First Aid was completed Aug. 18 at the Key Peninsula Fire Department. Eleven of the 16 teens who began the class were present to complete the 90-minute session, number three of a three-part series.
In broad terms, the class aimed to teach a greater awareness of the mental health challenges of others, paired with a set of skills to assist students with mental health struggles. Students learned the warning signs of mental health issues, and how to reach out to other students in a nonjudgmental and supportive manner. Students are encouraged to make contact with trusted adults for assistance.
“There is an enormous support system available. There are dozens of people willing to help you,” said student Brody O’Shea.
The classes presented to high school students in the Peninsula School District are the result of a multi-agency collaboration to provide funding, space and instructors. All Henderson Bay students received the training last year. The KP fire department, Tacoma Pierce County Health Department, Peninsula School District, Communities in Schools of Peninsula, Gig Harbor-Key Peninsula Suicide Prevention, and the Boys and Girls Club are all participants in helping to provide the program to teens. The evidence-based curriculum is the first created specifically for teens.
“We all need help, and we all need some sort of connection,” said student Jane Edgar. “I’ve never dealt with a class like this before. It shows how many changes have happened in 20 years. Connection is so important. If your mental health isn’t good, it affects every aspect of your life. The class really emphasizes that. It should be part of every health class.”
Instructors Anne Nesbitt of KPFD and Becky Maffei of PSD have been team-teaching the classes for students in 10th to 12th grades. “Seven percent of high school kids say they do not feel safe at school, due to bullying or other causes,” Nesbit said.
Bullying is a major source of distress for kids. “Conflict is not bullying; bullying is about power differences,” Maffei said. “Reporting bullying and blocking social media are two important ways of taking away that power. “
Numerous studies, such as those from Yale University (April 2023), the University of Texas Houston School of Public Health (July 2023), and the National Institute for Mental Health (May 2023) show that the rate of teen suicide is as high as it’s ever been, and is the third leading cause of death for teens currently. In addition, the data shows that incidences of ER visits and hospitalizations rise from October through May — the months that school is in session.
The Texas study concluded there is a pattern of suicidality related to the academic calendar year. Teens report overwhelming issues related to bullying, parents divorcing, drug and alcohol use, and peer pressure, creating a crisis that is too much for them to bear.
Against this backdrop, TMFA is meant to bring awareness and a toolbox for teens to provide coping skills for themselves and others. The program was developed with an international panel of experts.
Students use a workbook that first describes the characteristics of good mental health, and proceeds to discuss various issues affecting students’ mental health. Students receive basic information about anxiety, depression, trauma, psychosis, ADHD, and eating disorders. Panic attacks, self-injury, suicide, bullying, violence, substance abuse and overdose are also covered. Students work in pairs to problem-solve. They particularly learn the importance of friendships in mental health.
“They learn to ‘embrace the awkward,’ improve listening skills, and that silence is OK,” Nesbit said.
Students become familiar with signs and symptoms of distress or crisis and practice empathetic conversations. The program emphasizes the importance of reaching out to trusted adults. Students never diagnose or attempt treatment. The goal is for students to provide peer-to-peer friendship, support and awareness. Many students are fearful of the stigma associated with mental health difficulties, and students in the class learn the importance of normalizing the struggles on the long list of possible issues for teens.
The students all had experiences that made them aware of the needs of others and the importance of having support people available.
“We are all human, we all struggle, and we all need help,” said student Brooke Czekanski. “Everyone should take this class; it would give them a better understanding of our mental health crisis.”
The importance of friendships for teens cannot be overstated Nesbit said. “Your friendship is not defined by the challenges your friends are facing.” In other words, you are not your diagnosis. Nesbit points out that isolation is not healthy for humans, something we learned during the Covid crisis.
“Safety nets were not there, face-to-face contact is so important,” she said, using the example of Fika culture in Sweden, where coffee with a friend each day is part of a cultural recharge.
“I have learned that taking small steps is important,” said student James McCourt. “It doesn’t have to be really big strides to help someone out. Just start by asking someone ‘How are you doing?’ because it shows that you care.”
Nesbit and Maffei are working to continue presenting the Team Mental Health First Aid classes in the upcoming school year in as many settings as possible, ideally as part of each health class.
“So many people say things like ‘Boys don’t cry,’ ” O’Shea said. “That comes from a place of miseducation. It’s important to have these conversations because people are overlooked.”
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