Youth Mental Health First Aid

Adolescence is the peak age of onset for mental illness, with one in five young people suffering from a mental health challenge. Additionally, half of all people who will ever have a mental illness experiences their first episode prior to 18 years of age (yet only 4 percent of the total US budget is spent on our mental health). While an early onset of mental illness is a significant predictor for future episodes, young adults are the least likely demographic group to either seek or receive treatment for a mental illness. As it is often assumed that teens are naturally just “moody” and “irritable,” the knowledge and attitudes of the adults in an adolescent’s life may affect how quickly help is sought, if at all.

That is where the Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) program comes in. YMHFA was created by the National Council for Behavioral Health to teach adults who regularly interact with young people, such as parents, teachers, coaches, caregivers, health and human services workers, etc., how to help an adolescent who is experiencing a crisis or mental health challenge. Many teachers are now required to be certified in youth mental health first aid through grants given to counties.

The 8-hour public education program introduces common mental health challenges for youth, reviews typical adolescent development, and teaches a 5-step action plan for how to help young people in both crisis and other mental health-related situations. The program covers anxiety, depression, substance abuse, disorders in which psychosis may occur, disruptive behavior disorders (including ADHD) and eating disorders, among others.

While participants don’t learn how to diagnose these challengers, they do learn to support adolescents who show symptoms of a mental illness or crisis. The 5-step action plan they use is as follows:

  1. Assess for risk of suicide or harm,
  2. Listen nonjudgmentally,
  3. Give reassurance and information,
  4. Encourage appropriate professional help,
  5. Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

The acronym ALGEE is used to help participants remember. It uses role-playing and simulations to demonstrate how to assess the above-mentioned mental health challenges, be a source of initial help, and ultimately connect young people to professional, peer, social, and self-help care.

In January 2013, President Obama recommended training for teachers in Mental Health First Aid. In 2014, as part of the President’s “Now Is the Time” initiative aimed at quelling the rise of school violence, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) funded 119 state and local educational agencies to support training school personnel in Mental Health First Aid.  Since 2008, the core Mental Health First Aid course has been successfully used to train 740,000 people across the country, including hospital staff, employers and business leaders, faith communities, law enforcement, and the general public, by a dedicated base of over 11,200 instructors.

The Youth Mental Health First Aid USA program was launched in 2013 and coincided with the Born Brave Bus Tour, partnered with the National Council for Behavioral Health and hosted by Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta. They created the Born This Way Foundation in 2012 to support “the wellness of young people and empower them to create a kinder and braver world.” The Born Brave Bus Tour was made up of interactive “tailgate” events in the 27 U.S. cities of Lady Gag’s Born This Way Ball tour, where mental health professionals were onsite to raise awareness of mental health issues and connect young people in need of support to local resources.

While no conclusive studies have been conducted on the YMHA USA program as it is so young, there have been extensive studies into the effectiveness of the program’s Australian equivalent. A 2011 study of the YMHFA program’s effectiveness in Australian schools concluded that “the Youth Mental Health First Aid course improves participants’ knowledge, attitudes and helping behaviour. The program has spread successfully both nationally and internationally.”

Participants in this school-based randomized controlled trial reported a reduction in some aspects of stigma towards young people with mental health challenges, increased knowledge of treatments available, and increased confidence in offering help to students or colleagues. There was an indirect effect on students, who reported receiving more information about mental health during school hours, and most of the changes were sustained up to half a year after the training.

In the years following the program’s initial launch in Australia, the program has spread not only to the U.S., but also to Canada, Singapore, England, Hong Kong, Sweden, and China. The National Council for Behavioral Health hopes to make the YMHFA program available in every one of the 4,197 colleges and 13,809 school districts in the U.S.


CM, Kelly, Mithen JM, Fischer JA, Kitchener BA, Jorm AF, Lowe A, and Scanlan C. “Youth Mental Health First Aid: A Description of the Program and an Initial Evaluation.” International Journal of Mental Health Systems. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 27 Jan. 2011. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.

“Lady Gaga’s Born Brave Bus Tour Back on the Road.” National Council on Behavioral Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.

“Now Is the Time Project AWARE Mental Health First Aid Grants.” Mental Health First Aid. N.p., 02 May 2014. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.

“Youth Mental Health First Aid Is Primarily Designed for Adults Who Regularly Interact with Young People.” University of Wisconsin – Superior, 22 Aug. 2016. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.

“Youth Mental Health First Aid Overview.” Mental Health First Aid. National Council for Behavioral Health, n.d. Web.

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