In a classroom at Alameda High School, students are talking animatedly at their tables. Some are reading from their workbooks, some are brainstorming ideas, and still others are writing or drawing on large sheets of poster paper.
Student Services Coordinator Jodi McCarthy moves from table to table, asking questions here, making suggestions there, encouraging some students and cajoling others. “Your assignment is the hardest,” she confides to one group. “So let’s think about it. What will you do if you know your friend needs help, but they don’t want to go to an adult or they want you to keep it a secret? What are you going to say to them? What’s the right thing to do?”
These teens are in a course called Teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA), which teaches students how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental health and substance use challenges among their friends and peers. Ms. McCarthy, along with Cassie Ferguson (Student Services Program Manager), Kelsey Patterson-Hall (Lincoln Middle School Counselor), and Cora Keeney (Island High School Counselor), teach this three-day course at Encinal High School, Alameda High School, and ASTI. To date, AUSD has trained close to 2,200 teens in tMHFA.
AUSD’s initiative began during the 2019-20 school year, when Ms. McCarthy procured a $45,000 grant from the Kaiser Community Benefit Fund. She next invited organizations that serve youth across the island to become Trainers in Youth Mental Health First Aid; these agencies now have internal staff who are certified to train other adults that interact with youth. Much like CPR First Aid, adults who are YMHFA certified can recognize when a youth is in crisis, provide them support, and get them to a professional. McCarthy also used this grant to get Ms. Ferguson, Ms. Patterson-Hall, and Ms. Keeney trained to deliver tMHFA in AUSD.
Teen Mental Health First Aid training was rolled out to 10th graders in 2021-22. The effort, Ms. McCarthy says, “is crucial to our support of the mental health needs of our students, especially given the devastating effects of the pandemic over the last three years.”
Only one other Bay Area school district – Livermore Unified – is offering this training to teens.
At AHS, the students are in the midst of the second of three sessions. The first session focuses on defining mental health challenges, the need to de-stigmatize mental health challenges, and appropriate help. The second session focuses on suicide and understanding the Teen Mental Health Action Plan. This Action Plan consists of five action steps:
- Look for warning signs
- Ask how they are
- Listen up
- Get adult help
- Provide friendship
“It’s really important to understand that you’re not responsible for diagnosing your friend, or being a therapist, or fixing them,” Ms. McCarthy tells her students. “This is just like medical first aid – you’re helping them in the short term while you’re getting them to adult professionals.”
The third session focuses on helping a friend in other types of crises (panic attacks, bullying, non-suicidal self-injury, substance abuse), self-care (healthy coping strategies), and recovery and resilience. All sessions end with resources available for students in crisis (e.g., the #988 Suicide Hotline, crisis text line, school counselors, and the School Based Health Centers).
“I don’t want to lose you”
To master the tMHFA Action Plan, groups of students are assigned to research and present on one of the steps, and then the class discusses the step in detail, including how to recognize the warning signs, how to inquire after someone’s emotional state, how to do skillful active listening, how to connect a distressed teen to adult help, and how to be a supportive friend.
Circling back to the question of getting adult help even when the distressed student doesn’t want that help, Ms. McCarthy says, “Here’s what you can say. ‘I would rather have you be mad at me for a week than go to your funeral. I love you, and I don’t want to lose you.’
“Whatever you do, don’t keep suicidal ideation a secret,” she emphasizes.
At the end of each session, students are given an exit ticket and encouraged to write their questions or concerns on a piece of paper, so that they can be answered, anonymously, in the next session or so they can be referred for a check-in with a counselor.
“We get amazing questions,” Ms. McCarthy says, “including about topics such as how therapy works, what to do if you have no trusted adult, and how mental illnesses can be treated. There are just so many questions that these students haven’t known how or who to ask.” Students also report getting tremendous value from the program; some have even contacted McCarthy after the fact to tell her how much it helped them.
AUSD and School Mental Health Resources
Students experiencing mental health distress - or students who have friends experiencing such distress - can get help via their school counselors, the School-Based Health Centers, or the "Need Help" form available via the "Student Resources" dropdown menu on each school's website.
We also offer a number of phone and text lines on our Mental Health Resources web page and Suicide Prevention Resources web page. The Mental Health Resources page includes information about Care Solace, a free concierge program that quickly connects AUSD community members with therapists.