Teen Mental Health Grad Support

A new training course equips teens with tools for more powerful peer support.

Santa Clara County’s collection of youth mental health services will soon get a new addition, the result of a burgeoning partnership between the county and the nonprofits Project Safety Net and Momentum for Health.

 County Supervisor Joe Simitian proposed the partnership, which aims to implement a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) pilot program for high school students in the North County and West Valley. The County Board of Supervisors approved $250,000 in initial funding for the proposal in June.

“We know the past year has been especially tough on young people,” Simitian said. “But there has long been a need for greater mental health services for youth in our county. This program should provide one more tool teens can use to improve their own well-being and help others in need as well.”

MHFA is a training course that teaches participants how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental health concerns, mental illnesses and substance use disorders such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and addictions.

Participants learn about local mental health resources, support groups and online tools, and gain the skills needed to reach out and provide help to someone who is experiencing a crisis or may be developing a mental health or substance use problem.

Youth-focused training

Although the National Council for Mental Wellbeing brought MHFA training to the U.S. more than a decade ago, the programs initially focused on adults and those who worked directly with youth rather than the youth themselves. In 2019, however, the council piloted a teen MHFA program in partnership with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation to bring the program to high schools across the country. High schools in Livermore, Northridge and Marysville were the only California sites initially selected.

But the demand for peer-to-peer support services in Santa Clara County has been growing for some time, according to Mary Gloner, CEO of Palo Alto-based Project Safety Net.

“Since I joined Project Safety Net five years ago, I have heard repeatedly from young people that they would like to be better prepared to help their friends and classmates when dealing with a mental health issue,” Gloner said.

Peer support is especially important during the teenage years, said Meghna Singh, a 2019 graduate of Gunn High School and Project Safety Net Board of Directors vice chair, who referenced recent “suicide clusters” in Palo Alto.

“Young people turn to their friends to share exciting moments, but also vent about the tough times, especially as they relate to mental health issues,” Singh said. “After the second suicide cluster in our community, I was desperate to learn how I could support my classmates who were struggling with their mental health so that we would not lose another student to suicide.”

Through researching online and talking to professionals, Singh said she was able to piece together how young people can support their own mental health and their peers’, but she wished the resources were more accessible for youth.

“For this reason and so many more, I’m beyond ecstatic to hear about the implementation of the youth mental health training for teens,” she said. “It’s imperative to learn about the signs and symptoms of mental health and substance use issues and how to connect their peers to support, which is exactly what this training will offer.”

Pandemic heightens problems

David K. Mineta, president and CEO of Momentum for Health, said young people in Santa Clara County are especially in need of mental health support due to high-pressure school and home environments, as well as a lack of access to on-campus support systems, conditions that have only been further exacerbated during the pandemic.

“Over the past year, we have seen an acute increase in the number of youth who need mental health services due to isolation, stress and anxiety brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mineta said. “As we begin to reclaim a bit of normalcy, mental health programs and services must be in place. They’re essential to the well-being and future success of local youth.”

Data from the National Council for Mental Wellbeing demonstrates that the need for youth mental health support and early intervention extends nationwide. In the U.S. alone:

• One in five teens has had a serious mental health disorder at some point in his or her life.

• Half of all mental illnesses begin by age 14, and 75% by the mid-20s.

• Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds.

In addition, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that mental health-related emergency room visits increased by 31% between April and October 2020 for youth ages 12-17.

“Using Project Safety Net’s connections and Momentum’s experience and success with implementing and evaluating a Mental Health First Aid Training program, this collaborative effort has the potential to act as the catalyst to reduce emergency room and hospital visits for mental health care as well as provide young adults with the education and knowledge needed to take care of their own mental health and those around them,” Mineta said.

Hannah Zhang, a senior at Gunn High, added: “Teen Mental Health First Aid is so valuable because it teaches students and young people to recognize and respond to signs – especially because it’s not always easy to reach out to adults. Having friends to support each other would be awesome.”

The pilot effort plans to involve the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District, the Fremont Union High School District and the Palo Alto Unified School District. Gloner said she hopes the program can expand to the rest of the county once other communities see the positive impact of the pilot.

Training also will be provided for parents, guardians and educators. For more information, visit mentalhealthfirstaid.org.