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Mental Health First Aid helps adults identify and assist children experiencing mental health crises

A first aid kit for your mind; mental health solutions addressed right in the classroom
A first aid kit for your mind; mental health solutions addressed right in the classroom 02:51

CHICAGO (CBS) -- May is Mental Health Awareness Month and all this week, CBS 2 will be examining the different challenges and treatments available -- for an illness, many are still too ashamed to talk about. The goal: to make sure people know that you don't have to suffer in silence.

Even children are learning to speak up about their struggles but sometimes grown-ups don't know how to help.

Morning Insider Lauren Victory takes a look at a "Mental Health First Aid" solution that's catching fire.  

Adults tell children to never give up. That practice makes perfect. But sometimes kids need more than mantras. 

"We're seeing a lot more kids that are experiencing anxiety, depression, sadness," said Judith Allen, COO of Communities In Schools of Chicago. "We are in the business of keeping students from dropping out of school.

The non-profit provides clinicians, coaches, and counselors for K-12 students. 

It also plays host to a very special and very popular course called "Mental Health First Aid."

"We saw almost triple in the requests that we received," said Allen, "a trend that echoes across our state."

According to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, "Mental Health First Aid" certifications in Illinois jumped 83 percent between 2020 and 2021. Right now, more than 98,000 Illinois residents are trained. 

The Communities In Schools (CIS) version of the program focuses on children. 

Allen, the lead trainer for CIS, tells us the main thing adults should look out for is isolation. For example, your child suddenly doesn't enjoy the people or places they usually do. 

The class teaches adults to further identify anxiety, depression, substance abuse, trauma, and psychosis.

"This training provides really concrete steps of, 'Ok I noticed something is going on, these are the things I can actually do about it," explains instructor Shipra Panicker.

She goes through real-life scenarios with participants like a break-up. 

"We're not going to tell this young person to just eat some ice cream and get over it. We're actually going to process with them what's going on," Panicker said.

Popstar Lady Gaga publicly supports teaching teens mental health first aid so students can learn to help each other. 

"It's not easy to face our mental health and it's something that has a heavy stigma around it," Gaga said in a 2019 video posted to the YouTube page for the Born This Way Foundation, co-founded by Gaga.

The foundation funds programming and initiatives "aimed at demonstrating the power of kindness to impact well-being, validating the emotions of young people everywhere, and eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health." 

"For me quite frankly, my dream is this happens in every school," said Gaga of mental health first aid training. 

That's Allen's dream too. She hopes mental health first aid is as common as CPR training.

"We feel that the physical health of a child is just as important as their mental health," she said. 

Of course, with everything, there is a cost. Currently, Communities In Schools "Youth Mental Health First Aid" course is free to participants by way of sponsorship from the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Foundation

CIS has used the funds to give over 1,000 adults in the Chicago area and counting a more watchful eye and better words of wisdom. 

The National Council For Mental Wellbeing tells CBS 2 that there are more than 2.6 million "First Aiders" and 27,000 certified instructors across the Country. 

Mental Health First Aid training in some form is mandated for school personnel in Arkansas, Maine, North Dakota, and Virginia.

CBS 2 asked the Illinois State Board of Education if our state might make this training a requirement someday: 

Public Act 102-197 requires licensed school personnel and administrators who work with K-12 students to receive training to identify the warning signs of mental illness, trauma, and suicidal behavior in youth and learn appropriate intervention and referral techniques. A school district may utilize the Illinois Mental Health First Aid training program to fulfill this requirement. ISBE has also promoted Mental Health First Aid via numerous grant opportunities:

  • The Illinois Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education (IL-AWARE) Grant that supports a $9 million, five-year initiative to develop a statewide model of mental health interventions and services across school-aged youth and family-serving systems.
  • A total of $2 million in state appropriations across fiscal years 2020 and 2021 to fund $250,000 grants to eight under-resourced school districts in Evidence-Based Funding Tiers 1 and 2 to design and implement districtwide plans to provide greater access to mental health services.
  • A three-year, $1 million federal Students, Teachers, Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence grant to provide Trauma-Informed/Youth Mental Health First Aid training to teachers, school administrators, counselors, local health departments, and community partners in 38 Regional Offices of Education and Intermediate Service Centers.

In addition, seven Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Hubs are housed across the state to provide professional development, training, and support to districts to establish and expand SEL and mental health programs in Illinois schools.

The National Council For Mental Wellbeing tells us "in existing Illinois law, teachers are required to take a course every two years so that they can identify the warning signs of mental health and substance use challenges in youth." 

Register for the next training with CIS on June 24 by visiting their website. To find other Mental Health First Aid classes near you click here

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