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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

New virtual Mental Health First Aid course teaches adults to support the youth in their lives 

Long before the pandemic, the need to support the mental health of young people was evident. With 50 per cent of all mental health problems established by age 14, the formative years of our youth are some of the most vulnerable. Now, by also having to face the impacts of COVID-19, that vulnerability in our youth has only grown.

For adults, it can be difficult to know how to relate to the young people in their lives, let alone how approach them about their mental well-being. To help open up those important conversations, the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC’s) updated its MHFA Supporting Youth training and adapted it to a virtual format — and, as adults may be surprised to learn, “relating” isn’t part of the curriculum.

“When you’re talking to a young person about their experiences, it’s not about you,” explained Denise Waligora, a training and delivery specialist at the MHCC. “By the time you’re an adult, you’ve overcome hardship, and learned coping strategies along the way. The same isn’t necessarily true of youth. You have to be able to listen without minimizing their experiences or comparing them to your own.”

That kind of non-judgmental listening is just one of the strategies participants can expect to pick up from the new Mental Health First Aid virtual training. During the highly interactive 10-hour course, they will also learn how to recognize the signs of declining mental well-being and engage in conversations about those observations, assist in mental health or substance use crises, seek outside supports, and care for themselves as a “first aider.”

Focusing on the individual
Rather than offering a step-by-step approach to supporting all youth, course facilitators emphasize the role individuality plays. “Everyone has a baseline set of behaviours, moods, and attitudes,” said Waligora; for example, while one young person’s declining mental health could manifest in low grades or conflicts with friends, those things could be the norm for someone else.

The most important factor to be aware of, she said, is change. “As soon as we recognize a shift in any of these areas, we need to ask, How big of a deviation is this from that person’s baseline and how long has it been going on?”

In a similar way, effective conversational strategies and types of support may also vary depending on the individual. While some youth might be eager to share their feelings if given the opportunity, others may feel embarrassed and need more time. To help create a comfortable atmosphere, course participants are taught to approach youth more casually while engaging in an activity, as opposed to confronting them head-on.

“Whether it takes one try or five, you’re showing that young person someone cares about them.”

An updated approach
While the updates to MHFA Supporting Youth were based on the original in-person course, the content has undergone more than a virtual makeover.

One key addition, says Waligora, is a section dedicated to marginalized groups, including racialized, Indigenous, and 2SLGBTQ+ youth. “A young person from the 2SLGBTQ+ community may have a very different high school experience than their peers, for example. We have to learn about and acknowledge those differences to provide the most effective support.”

Another aspect of effective support (and further addition to the course content) is self-care for first aiders themselves. While participants are largely trained to support the youth around them, they are also taught to acknowledge the toll caring for others can take on one’s own well-being.

Finally, the updated course has shifted to include a more holistic approach to wellness. Rather than focusing on labels, the training follows a recovery-oriented model, emphasizing resilience and overall well-being in all areas of life.

Our collective responsibility
While the course was built for adults who interact with youth, as Waligora points out, that group extends far beyond parents.

“Almost all of us have young people in our lives, whether it’s relatives, neighbours, students, or employees. If you’re close enough to notice a change in a person, you’re close enough to offer your support.”

Late last year, the government of Saskatchewan echoed that sentiment by committing $400,000 to provide MHFA training in K-12 schools across the province.

“Our goal is to have at least one staff member in each school receive Mental Health First Aid training by December 2021,” said Saskatchewan Education Minister Dustin Duncan. “We are excited to support schools in ensuring students have access to mental health resources, and I encourage all provincial school divisions to take part to help remove the stigma around mental health.”

For Waligora, the bottom line is simple: “We have a responsibility to protect our youth. Every young person deserves a safe place to turn. As adults, we can be that place.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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