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Pilot program teaches Jefferson High students to recognize, respond to mental health crises

(HELENA) Students at Jefferson High School in Boulder say they know mental health is an issue that affects many of their peers.

“You see it all the time, even with your close friend group,” said sophomore Abbie Youde.

Now, they will be better equipped to recognize and respond to mental health challenges. On Tuesday, about 180 sophomores, juniors and seniors completed a program to become certified in “Teen Mental Health First Aid.”

Mental Health First Aid is a training program that teaches people how to identify signs and symptoms of mental health issues and how to connect someone to help and support. More than a million people have gone through versions aimed at adults and at people who work with youth. The newest version of the training is designed specifically for students.

The National Council for Behavioral Health and the Born This Way Foundation selected Jefferson High as one of just eight sites nationwide to take part in a pilot program for Teen Mental Health First Aid.

“It’s very awe-inspiring,” said JHS librarian Sarah Layng, who served as the local program lead and traveled to Las Vegas to be trained as an instructor.

During five sessions over the last month, students learned about the signs of mental health issues, the difference between a challenge and a true crisis, and how to get someone in crisis to the help they need.

“So, what to do and how to respond to a friend, how to connect that friend with some adults to receive treatment, and then how to continue being a friend to that person,” Layng said.

The goal isn’t for students to solve their friends’ issues. Like physical first aid, it’s about providing immediate assistance – and then getting a person to someone who can give additional help.

Youde said she has been in situations when she could see her friends were having trouble, but she didn’t know how to react. She said the training gave her confidence to respond the next time.

“So you’re not just standing on the sidelines looking at your friend like, ‘Something’s wrong and I don’t know what to do,’” she said. “Now you can jump in and ask them about what’s wrong and listen and help them find good resources.”

Students said they have already begun to see changes at JHS since the pilot program began.

“We are more aware of the issues as a school, and we now have the tools to help fellow students and others in need,” said junior Jadyn Bellander.

Layng said she has heard about cases where her students have already used what they learned from the Mental Health First Aid program.

“I think it’s really opened a lot of minds, especially so that they get rid of the judgmental stigma that’s related with mental health,” she said. “Hopefully that conversation can keep going.”

There is expected to be another round of pilot projects next year. After that, leaders will take what they learned from Jefferson High and the other initial locations and use it to decide whether they need to adjust the curriculum before they roll it out on a larger scale.

JHS students like Bellander say they already see the training as a success.

“It has changed the attitudes in our school and just helped us become a way closer-knit community,” she said. “I’m really glad that we had the opportunity to go through it.”

Jonathon Ambarian

Jonathon Ambarian

Jonathon Ambarian grew up in Southern California, and graduated from the University of Montana in Missoula. He first came to Helena in 2013, to cover the Montana Legislature, and returned in 2016 as a reporter with the Montana Television Network. He's proud to bring viewers stories about the issues that affect them.
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