Contributed by Maria Boswell, Director, Mental Health First Aid and Dr. Jean Wright, Director, Behavioral Health and Justice-Related Services, DBHIDS

Knowing the difference between typical adolescent behavior, and behaviors that should be cause for concern can be difficult to assess for parents, family members, and for those who care for our youth.

If you are a parent or youth caregiver, you are likely all too familiar with the ups and downs of adolescents – frequent changes in emotions, withdrawing from family, testing limits, and the need for more privacy. Sounds familiar, right? Unfortunately, and all too often, parents and caregivers unfamiliar with behaviors that could potentially be signs of a mental health problem rely on beliefs such as, “he’ll grow out of it, like we all did” or “she’s just being a typical teenager”. Fortunately, most youth pass through adolescence with relatively little difficulty, despite the typical challenges faced. However, for those who are struggling or may be experiencing mental health problems, this can be a frightening and painful time.

What does the science say about our teens and mental health problems?
Unlike most disabling physical diseases, mental illness begins very early in life. Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14; three quarters have begun by age 24. Anxiety disorders often begin in late childhood, mood disorders in late adolescence, and substance abuse in the early 20s, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. (Sadly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that suicide is now the second leading cause of death in youth ages 15-24).

Research tells us that the majority will not or cannot seek out treatment on their own. Of the two million young people struggling with depression, only 39 percent receive treatment. Without early intervention, child and adolescent disorders frequently continue in to adulthood.

So how does a parent or youth caregiver “know” when there is cause for concern? 
Does it require an academic understanding of mental illness? A degree in psychology?  The answer is no. A combination of genuine concern and caring, coupled with a basic understanding of common mental health problems, signs and symptoms, is a good start to helping a teen who may need help.

Mental Health First Aid for Youth is an evidence-based, widely endorsed and funded training for everyone who interacts with youth and wants to learn the basics of how to assist a young person who may be struggling with a mental health challenge. In the U.S., Mental Health First Aid is administered by the National Council for Behavioral Health in partnership with the Missouri Department of Mental Health and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The Youth Mental Health First Aid curriculum is primarily focused on information participants can use to help adolescents and transition-age youth, ages 12-18.

This one-day course (free to adults who live, work or study in Philadelphia) teaches participants the risk factors and warning signs of a variety of mental health challenges common among adolescents, including anxiety, depression, psychosis, and substance use disorder.  Participants will learn to be able to approach youth in their family or community and listen nonjudgmentally, offer reassurance and information, and help to facilitate their getting appropriate care.

Participants do not learn to diagnose, nor how to provide any therapy or counseling in this training – rather, participants learn to recognize and support a youth developing signs and symptoms of a mental illness or in an emotional crisis.  The course focuses on a five-step action plan taught through lectures, role-playing, videos, and simulations.  Participants receive answers to key questions like, “What can I do?” and “Where can someone find help?” A comprehensive manual, local resources, (click here) and information on 24-hour helplines are given out at each training. (If you live and/or work outside of Philadelphia, visit Mental Health First Aid USA and click “take a course” for trainings near you.)

Typical adolescence comes with its own set of obstacles, but, if a teen is struggling with additional challenges, the support of adults who recognize the signs and symptoms of a mental health problem can be a life saver.

Here is a sampling of the feedback that we’ve gotten from the training:

A School Police Officer: “This training was way overdue. Those situations have been issues that I deal with on a regular basis.”

A Paraprofessional: “Very important; a must for all noon-time aides and for parents.”

A Teacher: “It was great, very informative, loaded with techniques I will use with my students.”

A Parent: “I have a 19 year old child who in the past 7 months has attempted suicide twice. At the same time I have a 22 year old child who is recovering from a drug addiction. The training that was offered to me through this program has helped a great deal as it relates to these events. I also work with the homeless many of whom suffer from mental illness and addiction, again this training has offered just how powerful the ability to just listen can be.”

For more information, or if you would like to find a training near you, call (215) 790-4996.