There’s a unique opportunity this year for students in Minden High School. Teacher John Dillon and Counselor Dr. Suzan Bailey are co-sponsoring the first high school teen mental health club in the state of Louisiana.
It’s called the Teen Mental Health First Aid Club, and it is part of a clinically proven, evidence-based model of mental health education called Mental Health First Aid or MHFA. MHFA began in 2001 in Australia when two mental health experts conceived the idea. It came to the US soon after.
The original program for adults is taught by trained facilitators to employees of public and private sector businesses who are likely to come into contact with people who may have mental health issues or who many be experiencing a mental health crisis. Dillon first heard of the program while working with friend Jill Waltemate, owner and Executive Director of Center for Counseling and Psychological Resources in Ruston, on a federal grant application in 2018 to secure MHFA training for facilities in Caddo and Bossier Parishes, such as Barksdale AFB, University Health Shreveport, Bossier Parish EMS, Easterseals Louisiana, and Caddo Parish Dept. of Juvenile Services. Waltemate was awarded a total of $125,000 a year for five years to facilitate training of personnel in these and other organizations in how to recognize signs of mental health issues or crises and how to give referrals to them so they can receive treatment.
Last year, Waltemate contacted Dillon about grant money she had procured to start a Teen MHFA Club, the first in Louisiana, and MHS Principal Dr. Becky Wilson jumped on the opportunity when Dillon told her. Over the summer, Wilson, Bailey, Dillon, and several other MHS staff attended a required certification training at Homer Hospital and led by Waltemate on Teen MHFA in order to meet the grant and program requirements.
Teen MHFA operates on a similar idea as the original program but at the high school level. Bailey and Dillon both underwent certification training earlier this year to teach the program, and they, along with WPSB Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Coordinator Ursula Hullaby, will train an entire class level, either sophomores, juniors, or seniors, in the Teen MHFA curriculum later this school year.
Teen MHFA is based on the idea that teens often feel more comfortable telling their friends about anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, or other mental health concerns instead of their parents or legal guardians. The Teen MHFA curriculum teaches them how to respond to such an occurrence, including how and why to contact a trusted adult to help their friend.
Initially, the club has more than 20 members. Both Dillon and Bailey agree that’s a very respectable number considering that most teens, and especially ones in rural areas, don’t often know what mental health actually is. “There’s a stigma about it,” says Bailey, “but we explain to the kids that mental healthcare IS healthcare. When you get sick, you don’t think twice about seeing a doctor, but when your emotions or thoughts don’t feel right, and that happens with all teens, they sometimes feel scared to ask for help.”
Wilson and Dillon also agree for the need. According to Wilson, “Mr. Dillon asked a few years ago if he could give presentation for professional development to the staff on teen mental health and how it relates to teen alcohol and drug abuse, and I told him that I had had a phone call from a parent that morning who had caught her child in a suicide attempt the previous night. Our kids need this kind of awareness because it’s in our culture to sweep mental health issues under the rug because it’s uncomfortable to talk about. But Minden High wants to take a healthier approach for our kids and their families.”
Dillon said that in the first meeting, one student member said she joined the club because she wants to help people, and she suggested having a community night to let parents and others know about the club and what they’re doing. Dillon was excited at the idea, saying, “I asked the kids if they had suggestions because the club is brand new, and there’s no model to follow, and this girl speaks up with that idea immediately, and I looked at Dr. Bailey and said, ‘Why didn’t we think of that? That’s brilliant!’”
Dillon and Bailey explain that all teachers and many other staff members of public schools are considered “mandated reporters” by state law and must report intentions or incidents of self-harm or intended harm to others to school authorities. Dillon says he has already reported four such episodes already this school year.
Bailey and Wilson and the club members hope to put on a community event later this school year. If you are interested in supporting the club, please contact them through the work emails at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.