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Youth Mental Health First Aid

Black and white photo of male teenager with his hand to his forehead.

According to the US Surgeon General:

  • Four million children and adolescents in this country suffer from a serious mental disorder that causes significant functional impairments at home, at school and with peers. Of children ages 9 to 17, 21 percent have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder that causes at least minimal impairment.
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 15 to 24. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease combined. Over 90 percent of children and adolescents who commit suicide have a mental disorder.

Cheryl Benefield, parent mentor in the Haralson County School District, works to assist her school system when a student is in crisis, serving as a provider of Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA).  She also trains people to be certified in YMHFA.

Benefield is part of 12 certified Youth Mental Health First Aid training teams in Georgia. She learned about this program when she became involved with DBHDD’s CHIPRA (see link on this page) project after discovering her own son’s struggles with mental health issues.

“His grades were fine. We didn’t see any ‘signs’ that he was struggling. If his friend hadn’t gone to their Chorus teacher, an adult that they trusted, we could be telling a very different story today,” Benefield said.

Benefield threw herself into the work of finding resources and getting assistance. As a parent mentor, she knew she needed to find a way to help administrators find ways to support families and students, especially the quiet ones who are more likely to fall in the cracks. Those cracks seem to get bigger, unfortunately, as schools struggle with the budget constraints that are common state wide.

“CCRPI (College and Career Readiness Performance Index) has students preparing for graduation paths and careers beginning in elementary school which is fantastic. As a result, however, school counselors are stretched thin. At the same time, some systems are being forced to eliminate school social worker or system social worker positions because they don’t directly impact instruction. All of this comes at a time when our schools are often expected to fill a gap that already exists when community service budgets are cut, “ she said.

Youth Mental Health First Aid offers schools a way to help fill the gap for crisis situations. “The person trained in YMHFA can be that safe person for a student to turn to or for an administrator to call on when a young person is in crisis,” she said. Youth Mental Health First Aid Responders are not trained to replace Counselors, Psychologists, or any other personnel. The YMHFA Responder’s capacity is much like that of someone trained in basic First Aid. They are prepared to assess the situation for threat of harm, listen for verbal cues while giving reassurance, and encourage appropriate professional and/or self-help and other support. Responders are not trained or expected to diagnose or treat mental illnesses or disorders, but to support those who are having difficulties or experiencing a crisis.

Several parent mentors have taken the training to become Mental Health First Aid certified for their systems. Here are some of their comments:

From Rozetta Calloway, Atlanta Public Schools:

“I took the training in Douglasville.  It was great!.  One of our students committed suicide this year at my daughter’s high school.  I told the PTA president about the training and the school has agreed to have the training for their advisors/home room teacher and parents.”

From JoEllen Hancock, Cherokee County Schools:

“I attended the training that Cheryl Benefield, Parent Mentor in Haralson County, does. It is a great training. If you get an opportunity to attend, I highly recommend it. I was able to bring one of the Guidance Counselors from my daughter’s high school to this training with me.  She couldn’t stop talking on the 2 hr-plus drive home about how needed this is by all high schools and how much this is going to help her in her job and benefit the students she comes in contact with daily!”