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Mental Health First Aid Training – Too Triggering For Teens?

Our teen suicide prevention campaign, See Something, Say Something (S4) is just over 3 months old.

Our S4 app concept has been nationally recognized by Verizon Innovative Learning, and in all likelihood will move forward to becoming a real, functional app by Spring. Many local teens have shared their stories of struggle and experiences with loss; and some 30 have expressed interest in becoming S4 advocates to help empower other teens. The Taos community has been overwhelmingly supportive of the initiative and anxious to help push S4 efforts forward. National crisis and prevention organizations have forged alliances with S4 and extended offers of partnership.

Without question, we’ve made great progress.

But in the 3 months since forming See Something, Say Something, we’ve also breathed a sigh of relief last week when deputies were able to intervene at Taos Gorge Bridge, preventing a teen already standing on the other side of the railing, from jumping and taking her life.

We’ve also mourned Brandy Vela (Texas), the 18 year old victim of cyberbullying who took her life by shotgun at home with her family, Lexi Williams (North Carolina), the 16 year old who jumped from a bridge into I-75 traffic to end her life, and to our horror, recently learned Katelyn Nichole Davis (Georgia) and Nakia Venant (Florida), ages 12 and 14 respectively, ended their lives by hanging, via global Facebook Live Stream broadcasts.

Clearly we have work to do, and certainly our efforts must be immediate and aggressive. We are out of time for topical discussions and slow moving planning. 

My advocacy for immediate Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) training for all Taos Municipal high school students is neither naive or unrealistic. I spent 14 years delivering programs in at risk communities to diverse populations, targeting everything from literacy, to teen pregnancy, to domestic violence, to aggravated assault and rape. I understand the complexities of program delivery and the burden of my ask.

Yes. I understand the weight of the 8 hour course, and its potential to be triggering to some teens (as well as adults). Yes. I understand as it is now, the Youth Mental Health First Aid course does not contain many “self care” elements that support a teen taking the course who is in crisis and in need of intervention. Yes. I am aware and thankful a “peer to peer” model of the MHFA course is under development. Yes. I am aware there are other factors — community, family, school — to take into consideration and offering YMHFA is not a perfect or complete solution to mitigating our community/cultural issues with suicide.

All factors considered, I still believe we have no time to waste.  Until a better solution is in place, we should work with [and augment if necessary] the instruction we have with certified facilitators trained to deliver it.

The reality of suicidal behavior may be generational but so are the realities of poverty, substance abuse and physical abuse.

This doesn’t stop us from introducing STEAM opportunities directly to students with the goal of developing skill-sets that will move them beyond poverty. We also support people who have lived with generations of substance and physical abuse, providing tools, education and encouragement for them to make different choices in their lives to create change.

Introducing MHFA training to teens who encounter crisis is no different.

See Something, Say Something has chosen to focus its efforts on teens because those speaking on its behalf, with the exception of me, are teens. It’s unrealistic to expect S4 (or any other initiative) to be the sole answer to meet every need as it relates to teen suicide. We hope our schools, community and impacted families will also feel compelled to implement/extend services to support the education happening with students. We hope this single action to empower young people already facing crisis daily, with useful skills for intervention, is a catalyst for change.

In the short-term, I challenge crisis and service providers to adapt the MHFA model we have to be more aligned to what we need.

Let’s add an additional facilitator to the 8 hour course to balance its delivery, and have counselors available to support students at the end. Let’s train teens (and allies if need be) who have completed the MHFA course, in delivering the pre-course discussion informing students of what to expect. We should explore a “train the trainer” delivery model to expand our local facilitator resources and work to identify funding to support the program fully.

Because the current course is not a 100% custom solution designed to meet every recipient need is NO EXCUSE to delay on moving forward.

As a parent, I wish my kids didn’t have to face the reality of teen suicide and peer pressures – virtual or close to home. But I’d rather they be fully informed than disempowered. And if by way of the MHFA course they encounter information that’s triggering and gives light to a personal struggle, I prefer being made aware of an issue that might not be on their (or my) radar at all.

Knowing what’s at stake and accepting we have NO WAY to shield our kids from the realities of teen suicide, can we really consider not moving forward because the solution requires refinement?

If you are a teen who has completed the Youth Mental Health First Aid training, we welcome your feedback. Feel free to comment to this post or if you prefer, email your thoughts to Justis at justisluis@gmail.com. Don’t hold back. We really do want and need to hear from you.