Free training program seeks to help adults respond to youth mental health concerns

Educators and other adults who work with young people in San Mateo County are learning how to better address mental health issues thanks to free training provided by a new program.

Youth Mental Health First Aid is an eight-hour training course offered in parts of the county for adults that teaches them how to deal with various mental health issues commonly faced by those between the ages of 12 and 24. Among other lessons, participants learn to recognize signs of potential issues and take action accordingly.

“We know that anxiety and depression are big issues –more and more people have those. And eating disorders, for example, you can see all the signs early on. Teachers are really critical liaisons to getting help for these students,” said Dr. Jei Africa, who works for the county's Office of Diversity and Equity, which oversees the mental health training.

The program is a youth-focused version of the Mental Health First Aid training program that the county implemented in 2011. With funds from Measure A, the county implemented the youth version last year to enable people who engage regularly with youth to know how to recognize the warning signs that may point to mental health crises. Those who complete the training program will be certified to provide mental health assistance to young people in distress.

To date, at least 450 adults from 71 schools in 24 San Mateo County districts have completed the training.

One teacher who went through the program said she was able to provide emergency assistance to a student who reportedly expressed thoughts of suicide. Elisa Fireman, who works at Hatch Elementary School in Half Moon Bay, received the free training in April and recalled how she was able to put it to use the next day.

“I attended the training, and the next morning, we had a child… that was suicidal,” Fireman said. “It was a bizarre coincidence. But because of the training, it was very easy for me to address the issues, and I was able to connect [the youth] with a therapist in an hour and a half.”

Fireman, who has worked as a teacher and in schools for 25 years, knew exactly who to contact, she said, because of the resources identified during the training session.

“I saw this child every day and didn't necessarily interact with her, and I think I'm pretty good at reading the body language, but I didn't get it,” Fireman said. “I didn't even know, but then the day after the training, I recognized it.”

Africa said county officials hope that not only teachers but other personnel and people who interact with children regularly will make use of the training sessions.

“Safety officers, bus drivers, janitors — all these individuals can really be support and pay attention to those issues,” she said.

Youth mental health issues have come more into focus particularly in light of violent school shootings and youth suicides. Fireman believes that addressing mental health problems head-on is part of a holistic approach to educating young people.

“Nowadays, quality instruction, academic rigor, is very important,” she said. “But the need for mental health training and recognizing signs is so important. It has to go hand in hand.”

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