Here’s the scenario: A bright student’s grades are slipping. She’s been missing class, and when she does attend, she’s more withdrawn. Something is wrong — and a teacher, staff member, or administrator has noticed. But what’s the next step?
Questions like this took center stage at Gloucester High School as 90 members of the school’s faculty, staff, and administration participated in Youth Mental Health First Aid Kit certification training.
Mental Health First Aid, a concept originating in Australia, is run by the National Council for Behavioral Health. The program offers eight-hour courses that teach ways to help others deal with mental health crises the way CPR teaches how to react to heart attacks.
James Cook, Gloucester High principal, said there are an abundance of mental health resources in place. The school offers counseling and referrals through its health center, a collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and Addison Gilbert Hospital. It also has an adjustment counselor — a kind of in-school social worker — on staff.
“This training was really about educating teachers on their potential role on first contact with students,” Cook said.
Nickey Mullen, employee assistance program director for Addison Gilbert parent company Lahey Health and a certified Mental Health First Aid instructor, led the training in Gloucester. She said the workshop — through vocabulary lessons, role-play scenarios, and group discussion — teaches participants how to make students comfortable enough to talk about their mental health, and how to respond as a first point of contact.
“I think what’s interesting is the myth that youth don’t want to talk about mental health issues,” Mullen said. “When you engage them in several different ways, that tends to open them up into a conversation . . . It takes courage [for students] to break down and admit that there’s something going on.”
The Gloucester High gathering was broken into small groups and each given a scenario to focus their discussions. They talked about how to gain the trust of students in crisis, and what resources should be used to help. Cook’s group addressed the withdrawn student. Later in the training, his group found out the student had a parent or guardian struggling with substance abuse, and were tasked with identifying the next step.
“If we find out there’s things happening at home putting the student in danger, we might pursue reporting that to [the Department of Children and Families],” Cook said. “If there’s a depression component, I’m getting that student connected to an adjustment counselor.”
Samantha Teixeira, the school’s library teacher, said the environment at Gloucester is very supportive, but it’s often hard to advance a situation when a student is in crisis.
“When a student needs help, everyone wants to be there and help,” Teixeira said. “The program helped expand teachers knowledge of how not to get stuck.”
Cook said that the feedback to the program has been positive and the training provided school employees with a common language and experience they can fall back on when dealing with mental health situations. He said he’d like to revisit the training in the future.
“I’m not sure the form it’s going to take exactly, but I have a real commitment for returning to this concept,” Cook said. “It’s part of this larger initiative where we want everyone in the building to be aware of the emotional and social state of the people they’re interacting with.”
Laura Elyse King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lauraelyseking.