Adolescents at high schools throughout the state are learning how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental health issues and substance use disorders in their friends and how to seek help from an adult that they trust through a mental health first-aid program for teenagers.
The Mental Health Association in New Jersey is introducing the program at 18 high schools for students in grades 10 through 12, using a $400,000 state grant that covers initial funding for the program.
“Research shows that young people may be the first to notice some emerging signs and symptoms in themselves and their friends,” said Ruth Kaluski, the statewide director of mental health first aid for the association. “But what to do with that information can be challenging. So, the idea was, ‘Let’s get the teens on board.’”
Lawmakers move to make mental health of NJ’s youth a key issueA continued focus on adolescent mental health throughout the state is a key issue for state lawmakers, advocates and parents who have seen the crisis balloon since the start of the pandemic.
A recent report from the Pew Research Center says that 40% of parents nationally with children younger than 18 are extremely or very worried that their kids might struggle with anxiety or depression at some point. The number of self-harm-related hospitalizations among New Jersey teenagers declined from 383 in 2017 to 288 in 2019, but jumped to 596 in 2021, according to a June report from the New Jersey Hospital Association’s Center for Health Analytics, Research and Transformation.
Learning the signs
With the teen mental health first-aid program in New Jersey, school personnel are teaching adolescents how to notice the signs and symptoms of mental health issues in their friends or in themselves, according to Kaluski. The program can only be offered in grades 10, 11 and 12, and it must be offered to the entire grade, Kaluski said.
The program not only gives students tools for how to talk to their friends about mental health issues, but also shows them how to connect to an appropriate and trusted adult “in their circle,” Kaluski said. The curriculum for the program can be taught in six 45-minute segments, or three 90-minute segments, depending on a school’s schedule.
The teen mental health first-aid program is a national program administered by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, a nonprofit organization that aims to “drive policy and social change” for over 3,000 mental health and substance use treatment organizations. The council also offers adult and youth mental health first-aid programs.
Back to school: Nurses, counselors prepare for students’ mental health challengesLast year, the Mental Health Association in New Jersey partnered with school officials at Absegami High School in Galloway, Atlantic County, to launch a pilot program for the teen mental health first-aid initiative, according to Jennifer Rushton, the director of curriculum and instruction for the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District. About 260 11th graders participated in the pilot, according to Rushton, who is also the district’s coordinator of its teen mental health first-aid initiative.
“Spreading mental health awareness among our youth and equipping teens with skills to help each other are important steps to building and perpetuating mental wellness in our state,” Carolyn Beauchamp, the president and chief executive officer of the Mental Health Association in New Jersey, said in a statement.
Because of the pilot program, students are speaking with guidance counselors and mental health professionals at Absegami High School more often, according to Rushton.
“That’s what we’re building our schools to be — that home away from home — where we’re looking out for your safety, we’re looking out for your emotional health, and we’re looking out for your academic wellness, too,” said Rushton.