How Youth Mental Health First Aid is Used in Georgia’s Schools
By Emily Graybill, PhD, Andrew T. Roach, PhD, Brian Barger, PhD, Ashley Salmon, MPH, Camara Gregory, MPH, Janay Tyler, MPH, & Jessica Barnett, MPH
Through Project AWARE, approximately 6,000 Georgia adults have been trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) across the majority of Georgia’s school districts (see map below). YMHFA is a day-long workshop that limits enrollment to a maximum of 30 individuals in each training session. It is considered the “gold standard” in mental health awareness training, with numerous publications supporting increased participant knowledge and confidence and decreased stigma post-training (e.g., Haggerty et al., 2018; Rose et al., 2019; Noltemeyer, 2019)
The Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University (CLD-GSU) has collected data demonstrating the knowledge gain, confidence gain, and stigma reduction experienced by YMHFA participants, who are referred to as First Aiders. Georgia’s First Aiders were surveyed about how they have used the YMHFA knowledge and strategies when interacting with youth in Georgia schools. Specifically, First Aiders were asked (1) How have you used the information learned in the YMHFA course? (2) Have you seen any schoolwide impact as a result of you and/or your colleagues attending a YMHFA training? and (3) Have you seen any changes in your students that you believe are the result of your and/or your colleagues’ use of the skills learned in a YMHFA course?
Some highlights from Georgia First Aiders’ responses are included in the lists below:
First Aiders reported improved interactions with students.
- The course reminds me to respect middle schoolers’ mental health.
- Since taking the course a couple days ago, I find myself assessing the young men I work with with more compassion and insight.
- Changed my student interview to address more mental health areas.
- I have changed the way I deal with students who are distressed. I have learned it is ok for them to express their feelings and talk to me and I can offer help by giving them resources.
- I have used the course information to better serve my students, my own children and family members, and to know myself better. I have been able to better understand motivations behind the actions of students and have been able to recognize when myself and others are in need of mental health supports.
First Aiders reported that school discipline procedures have changed to consider the impact of mental health on behavior.
- We’ve been able to advocate more for holistic consequences rather than punitive measures.
- Yes, I’m not too quick to discipline as a first response to behavior issues. I try to understand why the child is acting out.
- First Aiders reported improved educator response during crisis situations.
- I had two students who told me they wanted to commit suicide and instead of panicking or feeling like I have to stop them, I had the tools to effectively handle the situation.
- I have used de-escalation techniques in my class to prevent/decrease a student’s meltdown.
- I have used the information learned in the YMHFA course when talking with students who are at risk and need that go-to person. I am better able to recognize the signs and act accordingly in a timely manner. I have also learned how to keep myself in control when working with these students so that the situation is handled appropriately.
First Aiders were more comfortable making referrals for youth or colleagues in need of mental health support.
- I have sharpened my observations of youth and recommended community mental health interventions when indicated.
- I have used this information to direct students/adults in distress to appropriate resources for help.
First Aiders shared YMHFA information and strategies with parents and teachers and other colleagues.
- I have educated parents in dealing with their children who have a mental disorder. I also have given strategies to teachers who have students with disorders in their classroom.
- I use it constantly in helping others to understand Mental Illness
- Recognizing the signs has helped me work with staff to help the students.
Students responded positively to the staff members’ use of YMHFA strategies.
- My students are more open to coming to me for assistance.
- One student even willingly informed me that suicidal thoughts have stopped based on our interventions.
- Yes, students that I have spoken with one-on-one seem to be more open about what they are going through and will ask for help or space to talk when needed.
- The students have come back to say that they are using the skills to help them cope.
- Yes, students seem calmer and staff is building trust using the techniques from training.
This is only a small sample of the hundreds of responses we have received from Georgia First Aiders about how they are using the YMHFA skills and strategies in their work with youth. Mental health awareness training works and we at the CLD-GSU are grateful to have been a part of this statewide effort to bring free, evidence-based mental health awareness training into Georgia schools.