"Before Things Come to Crisis"

 Extension's Youth and Family Team Adds Mental Health First Aid to its Offerings

December 14 marked the second anniversary of the school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, when many of us watched the event unfold with the same horrified question: “Why?” The complex answers behind that simple question continue to vex us all, mental health specialists included.

Yet, policymakers, lawmakers, and experts have begun to take action.

UNH Cooperative Extension has joined a force of more than 2,500 people worldwide who are becoming trained to head off violent acts by recognizing the early warning signs in young men and women struggling with mental anguish or despair.

Thom Linehan, Rick Alleva, and Gail Kennedy, all from Extension’s youth and family team, have become certified as expert trainers in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), a program created in Australia in 2001 and embraced in President Obama’s post-Sandy Hook The Time is Now initiative and the Mental Health First Aid Act of 2013, co-sponsored by New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte. These bipartisan actions aim to help adults recognize the signs of mental health disorders in adolescents and find them the necessary care.

As part of their commitment to MHFA, Linehan, Alleva, and Kennedy will be spreading the word to adults across New Hampshire who work with young men and women. Their first training session was held recently in Somersworth.

“Our niche is to train people who work with youth in out of school time, such as after school program staff, coaches, bus drivers, and 4-H leaders,” said Linehan. “Our mission and our audience are clear—it's not our intent to train mental health professionals, or first responders, or law enforcement officials. This is not treatment or therapy. It’s helping folks who work with youth every day to become more aware before things get to crisis.”

A first warning sign, Linehan said, is simply that someone is behaving differently than his or her usual moods or personality. “The natural response of an adult who notices unusual behavior is to get nervous, frustrated, or fearful, but MHFA trains them to become more sensitive and aware to things before it becomes real distress,” Linehan said. 

 Linehan, Kennedy, and Alleva will be spreading the word to adults across New Hampshire who work with young men and women.

Linehan acknowledges that adolescence is a natural time for strong emotions, building identity, and new behaviors. “A big part of our training is to not pathologize typical youth behavior—we spend a lot of time on just that question—what is typical and expected in the range of youth development, and how is that different from real mental distress?”

MHFA teaches a five-step process that helps an adult leader organize his or her thoughts and actions when dealing with a potential problem. This process suggests thoughtful assessment of the situation, non-judgmental listening, giving reassurance and information to the youth, and encouraging him or her to seek out the appropriate professional and personal help.

“If a baseball coach noticed that one of his athletes was angrier than usual, or a 4-H leader observed someone showing strong anger, stress, or anxiety, or not being able to handle situations, the process would help them think through the situation,” Linehan said. “Usually, it’s a change that alerts folks.”

The UNH Cooperative Extension MHFA team is planning between six and ten trainings in New Hampshire in the next calendar year. “We’re working in collaboration with Across New Hampshire, an organization of after school programs, to help us identify ideal training sites and invite people who could make best use of this information,” Linehan said.

The first session at Somersworth Middle School drew about 20 people, he added, including after school program leaders, a superintendent of schools, and youth leaders from Rochester and Dover.

An Issues and Ice Cream session on Mental Health First Aid, scheduled for December 17, has been postponed and will be rescheduled for a date in early spring.

Watch for a full-length feature on MHFA in New Hampshire next spring.

For more information on MHFA, visit The National Council

—C. Ralph Adler