Taylor Jones


Courtesy photo

If you saw a teenager fall and get hurt, you would probably reach out to help or call 911. But would you know how to respond if you thought a teen was depressed or showed signs of substance abuse?

Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) gives ordinary people the tools to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness in adolescents. It helps people overcome the stigma, fear and labeling of people with mental health issues.

Like First Aid or CPR, it’s meant to show everyday people — parents, friends, youth-group leaders — steps to recognize and de-escalate a crisis. Just as CPR or First Aid courses only teach you what to do to immediately assist someone until medical personnel arrive, Youth Mental Health First Aid focuses on early detection, encouraging people to get professional help, and knowing self-help strategies. The course doesn’t call on individuals to diagnose a problem, but it gives them the skills and confidence to offer help and to know where to go for help. Topics include an overview of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, psychosis, disruptive behavior disorders and eating disorders in adolescents ages 12 to 18.

The national program relies on specially certified AmeriCorps members and others to teach adults how to step in to help. The free, eight-hour course trains adults to recognize potential warning signs and symptoms of a mental illness, as well as how to appropriately intervene during a mental health crisis using a five-step action plan.

YMHFA uses the letters ALGEE, a mnemonic device, to make it easier to remember the steps:

  • Assess for risk of suicide or harm
  • Listen nonjudgmentally
  • Give reassurance and information
  • Encourage appropriate professional help
  • Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

The approach was introduced to the United States in 2009 by the National Council for Behavioral Health. In Billings, the course runs through the Area Health Education Center at RiverStone Health and offers continuing education credits.

Since the Billings courses began last fall, more than 150 people have completed the training. Participants have included college students, teachers, nurses who work with foster children, tribal leaders, and volunteers who act as court appointed advocates, along with parents, community members and high school students.

The course is generally geared toward adults, but has also been taught to mature high school students. In February, a dozen Billings high school students participated in a two-day Heads Up Behavioral Health Careers Camp at RiverStone Health. Along with the YMHFA training, they heard from professional about behavioral health careers. The teens engaged in role-playing scenarios to practice their skills. They also looked at ways to take what they had gained from the course and apply it to their schools. This course was given to students in the hopes that they would become more self-aware. Also, youth spend the majority of their time with their peers, and may be able to recognize warning signs earlier and reach out in support. The camp was sponsored by the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Yellowstone County, the Montana Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch and RiverStone Health Foundation.

Research evidence indicates that participants who complete the training tend to show a more positive attitude toward those suffering from mental health issues, the ability to identify professional and self-help resources for mental illness or addiction, an increased likelihood to confidently reach out to an individual in distress, and an increase in their own mental wellness.

The National Council for Behavioral Health’s goal is to make Mental Health First Aid as common as CPR training.

Taylor Jones, AmeriCorps member and Youth Mental Health First Aid Instructor, can be reached at 247-3289 or taylor.jon@riverstonehealth.org.