State Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven says students, teachers, and school staff are experiencing increased mental health challenges and stressors right now. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is using federal relief funds to partner with Mental Health First Aid Missouri to provide mental health first aid trainings to K-12 schools across the state at no cost.
Mental Health First Aid Missouri is operated by the Missouri Department of Mental Health (DMH) and the Missouri Institute of Mental Health. Two options are being offered to schools – mental health first aid for adults and youth mental health first aid.
Amy Bartels, with Mental Health First Aid Missouri, says the training does not teach people to diagnose individuals in distress. Instead, it teaches them to put on their noticing glasses.
“The research shows that anxiety and depression are on the rise as well as unfortunately suicide and signs of suicide,” she says. “What we’re really doing is teaching individuals to be aware of changes that they see and really how to respond. We base that on an action plan, called ALGEE, where we’re assessing, we’re learning to listen non-judgmentally, learning to give reassurance and information, encouraging appropriate professional help and encouraging self-help and other support strategies.”
Bartels encourages schools to get signed up as soon as possible.
“When DESE rolled this out, we thought, ‘Okay, let’s see what’s going to happen.’ And within just a few hours, we had more than 50 schools that had already signed up to participate in this training. So, we know that the need is out there,” says Bartels.
The courses last about one day and certification is good for three years. They are available virtually or in-person.
Bartels says course participants get a lot of good information that is self-reflective.
“We talk a lot about the importance of self-care, both for a person that’s struggling, an then for you as a first aider, how important it is to debrief the stressful situations and in a really constructive way, in a confidential way, of course. We talk about how important it is to take care of yourself. We know in education that we’ve got so many individuals, from teachers, to administrators to our paraprofessionals, to our transportation and our food service, and everyone that’s involved in a school district that they are pouring into our students and our families and our communities. And so, often they leave very little left for themselves,” she says. “So, one of the key pieces of this curriculum is that it really helps to kind of say, ‘Here’s what I might do in a in a crisis or a non-crisis situation. And then here’s how I might reflect back and use that information to help myself, be mentally healthy as well.’”
She says the training also covers myths about individuals struggling with mental health problems. Bartels says one myth is someone who is struggling with mental health is a threat or is a danger.
“Research shows that more often they are a victim of violence than the perpetrator of violence,” she says. “So, a lot of what this training does is it just humanizes and normalizes this experience. In fact, we know that one in five, over their lifetime are going to struggle at some at some level with their mental health. And so, when you look around and you go, ‘Wow, it’s not as uncommon as I thought. In fact, it’s, it’s more common.’ And so, it’s through a series of kind of small groups, working through some of the skills, through some scenarios, through some videos. In the training, you get really good opportunity to kind of say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know it felt like that. And, gosh, I really just, I think I want to check in on my neighbor, or maybe I’ll ask my coworker, how they’re doing.’ And so a lot of what we do is focusing on that initial just assessing again, I like to say put on your noticing glasses, and it’s really just paying attention to people around you having a little bit of compassion and building that sympathy for folks that might be struggling with some of these challenges with mental health.”
According to Bartels, early intervention is key to getting someone help and on the road to recovery.
“While we can’t prevent every situation from reaching that crisis point, we do know that early intervention is the best opportunity for a peron to get help and to get on that road to recovery,” she says. “In fact, the longer a person goes without getting help and, often we know that people that start to have initial symptoms, often it’s 10 years before they reach out to get help. The earlier we can intervene, the earlier that person can get connected. Whether it’s connected with a professional or connected with some type of help, the better their outcome is long term, the better opportunity that they have to feel better.”
Although this effort is geared towards schools, Mental Health First Aid Missouri offers several free courses to the public that are funded by the Missouri Department of Mental Health. It also offers instructor training to teach others in the community how to respond to mental health and substance use challenges.
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