The teenagers gathered in a room at Agate Family Fellowship in Tangent on Thursday afternoon were getting a 75-minute break from classes at South Albany High School to learn about mental health — and they were first in the nation to do it.
“It’s the first day ever. It’s exciting and I’m letting them all know they’re the first group to get this training in the country,” said Maria Pos, mental health first aid state coordinator for the Association of Oregon Community Mental Health Programs.
The training is part of a pilot program launched in eight states by the Born This Way Foundation (founded by the music star Lady Gaga) and the National Council for Behavioral Health to give students the tools to recognize mental health and addiction signs in their friends and how to take the next step in finding them help.
“That’s the value of the program,” said Jill Baker, a counselor at South Albany High School. Baker said the school has devoted money and staff time into mental health by introducing therapists and curriculum surrounding anxiety and depression in health classes.
“Those are focused on the signs and symptoms but not the plan,” she said.
The teen Mental Health First Aid Program is comprised of three 75-minute instruction periods that introduce the signs of mental health and addiction issues to students through video and workbook-based curriculum. The crux of the program, however, is teaching them how to guide friends who may be experiencing these issues toward trusted adults.
Students between the ages of 15 and 18 can take part in the program but Pos said she opted to limit the training in Oregon to South Albany High School and 10th graders, specifically.
“I chose not to do seniors because they get the information and they’re gone,” she said. “The same kind of thing with juniors. If we start with the 10th graders then this will continue in the school for a couple of years.”
South Albany High School was chosen because of the mental health supports it already has in place.
South Albany and the state association "are taking important steps toward ensuring their students are able to recognize when a friend or peer might be struggling and to feel confident that they know what to do to help,” said Cynthia Germanotta, president and co-founder of the Born This Way Foundation, in a press release. “Knowing how to spot the signs that someone in our lives is experiencing a mental health challenge and understanding how we can support that person is a basic life skill we all need to have — especially teenagers.”
According to Baker, South Albany High School polls its students each year, and in the six years she has been at the school there is a consistent 20 to 25 percent of the student body that has had thoughts of suicide. Statewide, the numbers are a bit lower.
Each year, the state releases the Oregon Healthy Teen Survey, a series of questions surrounding behavior, drug use and health of eighth and 11th graders. According to the 2017 report, which surveyed 14,852 eighth graders and 11,895 11th graders, about 17 percent of eighth graders had considered suicide. Of the 11th graders surveyed, 18.2 percent had suicidal thoughts.
It’s an issue Baker said is being made worse by the rise of social media, which makes it easier for bullies to reach their targets outside of school.
“They never get a break from it because of their phones,” she said. “The other thing I think links it with adolescents especially is that their brains don’t do as good of a job at separating. They can read about a school shooting in Tennessee and they can feel like it happened to them. Or they can read about a suicide in Jefferson and even though they didn’t know them, they know someone who knew someone who them, and then suddenly they know somebody who died by suicide.”
Suicide is one of the more extreme instances students learn about during the training but they also get the basics of depression, anxiety, addiction and other issues facing teens. They’re serious issues that can be hard to take on for adults but Pos said the program also focuses on how to teach students to handle the heaviness.
“It’s not to carry the burden and they have to feel like they need to figure it out for their friend,” she said. “It’s teaching them how to recognize there’s a problem and how to connect their friend with a trusted adult.”
Students are also given the basics in state and national organizations like the national suicide prevention hotline and Oregon’s Let’s Talk texting hotline specifically for youth in crisis.
The hope, is by giving these tools to all of the 10th graders in the school, it will broaden the reach of available services.
“It’s proactive,” Baker said. “We’re teaching, instead of playing whack-a-mole, which is what we do in schools.”