The Importance of Mental Health First Aid

The world is a far different place than it was 15 years ago. Smartphones and the internet have fundamentally changed how we interact with one another — especially for younger generations. While there have been many positive outcomes, there are also downsides.

Mitch Taragos, a 9th-grade teacher at Fargo South High School, has been teaching for 11 years, and he has witnessed this change firsthand.“I’ve had kids tell me they delete Instagram photos if they don’t get enough ‘likes,’” he said. “They’re constantly inundated on social media. Constantly comparing. It’s not healthy.”Some studies show that with more negative social media experiences and comparisons, kids (and adults) have higher rates of discontentment and depression (American Psychiatric Association). Suicide is on the rise across the nation and is currently the second leading cause of death in youth ages 15-19.

Mitch knows the pain of this loss. He has lost former students to suicide. “Teenagers can hide the signs,” he said. “They hide it at home, or online. We have to be aware of those subtle warnings.”

This is why he strongly encourages learning how to identify and respond to mental health crises. In the classroom, Mitch teaches a 4-unit course on mental health that involves bringing in FirstLink’s educators. For over 20 years, FirstLink has organized a Suicide Education Outreach program for local schools, sending educators into classrooms to teach mental health awareness. The program has been a positive experience for both Mitch and his students.“I appreciate the focus on positivity,” Mitch said. “In one exercise, we have to write about what we do well. Students don’t like this assignment, because society is all about our faults. But the training from FirstLink is geared toward self-affirmation.”

Mental health training is not just for students. In recent years, FirstLink launched Mental Health First Aid training for the community. The interactive 8-hour course teaches trainees how to care for someone who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. The training helps people identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders.

It’s a training that Mitch wishes he could require for every parent and teacher.“These classes are extremely valuable. When you think someone is struggling, how do you break the ice? What do you do? What do you say?” he said. “This class gives you the foundation of where to begin.”

As the parent of two teenagers and a teacher to over 270 students, Mitch recognizes the need to bridge the gap of understanding between older and younger generations — particularly with the rapidly changing world of technology.“FirstLink’s training helps you get on the kids’ level, in terms of their experience,” he said. “The more insight we have, the easier it is to recognize the subtle warning signs of depression. We can help our kids, students, and loved ones before it becomes a crisis.”

In one year, roughly 1 in 5 US adults deals with a mental health issue. This means that everyone reading this knows someone who is struggling, or has experienced a mental health condition themselves.

“Everyone deals with this. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with you,” Mitch said. “It’s OK to ask for help. FirstLink makes the conversation very open. It’s not intimidating, and they explain in simple terms how it applies to those around you, and to yourself.”

Attending FirstLink’s Mental Health First Aid training is a first step toward understanding and responding to mental health. It’s not a band-aid or cure-all, but it’s a step.

“It’s okay to not have all the answers,” Mitch said. “Going to these trainings helps give you a starting point. It gives you courage.”If you’re interested in taking the first step, visit myfirstlink.org/events for upcoming trainings and opportunities.

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