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I recently participated in a certificate-training course on mental health first aid for those who work with youth. When I learned about the opportunity, I felt it was relevant to me not only professionally as a health educator, but also personally as a parent and coach. The training is meant to help those working with youth learn specific skills that are critical during a mental health crisis. It provided deeper insight as to what mental health is and showed participants how to handle a crisis in a way that youth may feel respected, listened to, and valued.

The adolescence stage in life can be a trying time. It is common for teens to encounter hormonal changes and identity issues, struggle for independence, feel pressured to engage in risky behaviors, battle concerns about their physical appearance, and worry about fitting in socially. While this sounds like a normal part of teen development, adults around them should be alert for signs that may indicate a bigger problem that the teen might be facing. Has the teen withdrawn from friends and family or stopped going to social or school events altogether? Is the teen giving away items that are near and dear to them? Have their grades dropped or is school attendance an issue now? Are there suspicious injuries on the teen’s body that make you think they are deliberately injuring themselves? These can be an indication that the teen may be experiencing a mental health crisis. The way we, as adults, approach this young person can make the difference! It should be done in a calm, nonjudgmental, and supportive way.

Anyone going through a crisis is in a vulnerable state, but a teen might be more at risk and resort to extreme measures including ending life. Therefore, it is important to assess for risk of suicide or self-harm. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people. One thing that struck me during the training I attended is the importance of when one sees warning signs to directly ask “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” and to follow up with more questions. “Have you thought of how you are going to do it or when?” “Have you done anything to start carrying out your plan?” It is a scary situation to be in, but in asking, the person has the opportunity to speak to someone about how they feel and to think about their intentions. They can see this as a way out, a chance to be listened to or even a compassionate shoulder to lean on. This can be crucial to the outcome of the situation. It is important to listen attentively, empathetically, and without judgement. Let the teen do most of the talking. Speaking about their feelings may provide them the sense of relief that they so desperately are looking for. Offer emotional support, reassure them that they are not alone, and remind them that there are healthy ways to cope with problems. There are resources, support networks, and professionals that can help. Toll free, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week hotlines are available by dialing 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433) or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

September 10th was National Suicide Prevention Day. I saw several posts on social media referring to Suicide Prevention Day and the hotline numbers. While health observances bring attention to health issues for a day, week, or even a month, we must all remain vigilant year round about the messages conveyed through these campaigns, the warning signs we are alerted about, after all, you never know when you can save a life.