Need to train teachers in mental first aid compelling

As of 2019, studies have shown that roughly 1 in 5 youth (13-18 years of age) are living with a mental health condition and about 40% of these youth do not receive treatment. The average time from onset of symptoms to receiving treatment is about 8-10 years, which means that their mental health conditions can consequently lead to further challenges in their daily lives sometimes unnoticed by those around them.

With suicide being the third leading cause of death for youth, it’s imperative that communities work together in order to help these youth recognize when they’re struggling with their mental health, find and navigate the resources and supports they need to maintain their mental well-being, as well as reduce the stigma surrounding seeking help.

There are multiple adverse consequences of not treating mental health related concerns in youth, which can affect their physical, emotional, mental and social well-beings. Untreated mental illness can lead to limitations in learning and development, which can affect the youth long into adulthood. About 37% of students with a mental health condition drop out of school and it’s reported that about 70% of youth residing in a juvenile justice system have a mental health disorder.

About 50% of all chronic mental health conditions begin by the age of 14; thus, recognizing these early warning signs and risk factors in youth are critical. If left unaddressed, symptoms may become worse; thus, impairing the youth’s ability to function effectively in all of their environments. Prevention is key and one effort that can be made is to train teachers in mental health first aid.

Students spend a significant amount of time in school and often consider teachers a source of support, especially students who are lacking that support at home. The State of Michigan ranks third among the worst states in regard to school counselor-to-student-ratio, well above the national recommendation (1:729 vs. 1:250). There needs to be further supports within the school systems to help bridge the gap between a student recognizing their struggles and finding and navigating the appropriate treatment.

One effort that can be made, is to require that all teachers complete a professional development course in mental health first aid in order for them to recognize early warning signs/risk factors for common mental illnesses and strategies for helping an individual, such as assessing risk, listening non-judgmentally and identifying professional help or other resources. This requirement would be counted toward the overall professional development that teachers need to complete.

This 8-hour training would provide teachers with the tools to help validate their students’ feelings/experiences and understand why they are behaving a certain way. Providing this training will hopefully help reduce disruptive classroom behaviors and promote safer, more supportive and more productive learning environments. It’s time that we break the stigma surrounding the idea of seeking help. In addition to its usefulness across various setting/contexts, this training is much more cost-effective than choosing to not address the gaps in mental health services. Every year, the U.S. loses billions of dollars to untreated mental illness. It’s time that we work together to implement more preventative programs to ensure that our youth are successful and healthy.

On Jan. 22, Senate Bill 0041 was introduced to the U.S. Senate and was referred to the Committee on Education and Career Readiness. This bill would amend “the revised school code” by requiring that all teachers take a professional development course in mental health first aid training no later than one year after the effective date of this law. This would be one step towards breaking the stigma between youth feeling comfortable to start talking about their mental health concerns and seeking help.

Please contact the Chair of the Committee on Education and Career Readiness, Rep. Lana Theis, at P.O. Box 30036 Lansing, MI 48909 or by phone 517-373-2420 requesting that this bill be reviewed and passed.

Editor’s note: Leslie Kovar of Ishpeming is a current master’s student in social work at Michigan State University expected to graduate in May 2020 with a certificate in working with combat veterans.