Addressing Mental Health in Schools Head-On

Last week, area educators and representatives of several United Way partner agencies took a giant step toward understanding and meeting the mental health needs of students in Central Alabama. They underwent in-depth instruction to become certified Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) trainers. This certification will allow them to effectively train school district staff and community members on how to help a child who is experiencing a mental health challenge or addiction or is in crisis.

Led by the National Council for Behavioral Health in partnership with Gateway, trainers spent three days on coursework covering common mental health challenges for youth as well as a five-step action plan for helping young people in both crisis and non-crisis situations. Topics covered included anxiety, depression, substance use, disorders in which psychosis may occur, disruptive behavior disorders (including AD/HD) and eating disorders.

The newly certified trainers will now be able to offer YMHFA training and support to school staff working in participating districts. This approach will greatly increase the local capacity for school districts to meet their internal needs.

Evidence behind the YMHFA program demonstrates that it builds mental health literacy and helps identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness. YMHFA is primarily designed for adults who regularly interact with young people. It introduces participants to the unique risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems in adolescents, builds understanding of the importance of early intervention and teaches individuals how to help a child who is in crisis or is experiencing a mental health challenge that could escalate.

The training is one aspect of a large, collaborative plan that school districts, mental health providers, funders and others have developed to build more comprehensive systems to deal with mental health issues in our schools. With support from Bold Goals Health, an arm of the Bold Goals Coalition of Central Alabama, and the Jefferson County Health Action Partnership, Tarrant City, Blount County, Pell City and Homewood City Schools have all committed to a common plan to enhance mental health training, assessment and services during the next three years. Funding for the pilot project has been provided by United Way of Central Alabama, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Caring Foundation and the Anne B. LaRussa Foundation for Hope, as well as by private donors.

As always, the Bold Goals Coalition is grateful to all the committed partners working to improve health in Central Alabama. We look forward to sharing the promising results from this project during the next several years.