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Bringing mental health first aid to Minnesota

PIPESTONE -- The National Council of Behavioral Health says that it is more likely to come in contact with someone having an emotional difficulty than someone having a heart attack or choking on a piece of food in a restaurant.

Paige Thompson. Photo by Jesse Trelstad/Daily Globe
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PIPESTONE - The National Council of Behavioral Health says that it is more likely to come in contact with someone having an emotional difficulty than someone having a heart attack or choking on a piece of food in a restaurant. 

However, when people typically think about first aid, they often immediately think of treating a physical ailment. The Mental Health First Aid program seeks to change that perspective.
Paige Thompson, a licensed graduate school social worker employed by the South West/West Central Service Cooperative, works daily with youths in the Pipestone Area School district. Thompson recently received training to teach others how to work with youths ages 12-18 who have mental health illnesses or substance abuse disorders through the Mental Health First Aid program.
“When our bodies need first aid, we take care of our bodies,” Thompson said. “We should be doing the same things with our minds.”
The Mental Health First Aid youth program sets out five learning objectives for the course:

  • Recognize the potential risk factors and warning signs of a variety of mental health challenges common among adolescents, including: depression, anxiety, psychosis, eating disorders, ADHD, disruptive behavioral disorders and substance use disorders.
  • Use a five-step action plan to help a young person in crisis connect with appropriate professional help.
  • Interpret the prevalence of various mental health disorders in youths within the U.S. and the need for reduced negative attitudes in their communities.
  • Apply knowledge of the appropriate professional, peer, social and self-help resources available to help a young person with a mental health problem treat and manage the problem and achieve recovery.
  • Assess the participant’s own views and feelings about youth mental health problems and disorders.

Thompson noted that while the material is aimed at working with 12-18 year old students, she also finds many of the techniques useful in working with younger students. The program is open to not only mental health providers or educators, but anyone who works with youths, including church leaders, coaches, government employees, law enforcement and parents. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 56,000 Minnesota children live with serious mental health conditions. NAMI also noted that during the 2006-’07 school year, approximately 44 percent of Minnesota students aged 14 or older living with serious mental health conditions and receiving special education services dropped out of high school. These statistics offer insight as to why addressing mental health issues is so important.
“Sometimes it’s heartbreaking to work with kids who are in a struggle,” Thompson said. “People around don’t always know what to do, whether it’s family or community providers, and sometimes not knowing what to do just makes it so much worse.
“I feel like this (program) is a tool. This is something I know will make schools better. It will make communities better, because people will know what to do and the worst thing is not knowing and not saying anything.”
NAMI Minnesota stated that half of all lifetime cases of mental disorders begin by age 14. Often, the first onset of symptoms and the time when people seek and receive treatment can be decades apart.
Thompson said the program is not only useful in helping youths beginning to display those symptoms, but can also be of assistance for students experiencing emotions such as grief unrelated to a disorder. Additionally, it spells out differences between typical adolescent behavior and atypical behaviors.
Thompson, who completed the program herself, said it was very rewarding and different than typical training programs. She explained that one of the interactive exercises involved helps people understand what it is like to live with auditory hallucinations. Further, 97 percent of participants who complete the course recommend it to others.
Mental Health First Aid is now offered nationwide and in 22 countries. For more information about the program or to inquire about possible trainings, contact Tammy Stahl at tammy.stahl@swsc.org or Paige Thompson at paige.thompson@swsc.org .

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