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Bill would expand Mental Health First Aid to include working with adolescents

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PHOENIX – A lawmaker wants to expand a state program that trains adults to identify and assist individuals showing warning signs of a mental crisis to include a focus on adolescents.

“We have become painfully aware over the past few years that many of our kids are struggling, and nobody notices until it’s too late,” said Rep. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson. “I don’t think that is deliberate on anybody’s part. I think that it’s something we’ve become aware of, that we need to address.”

Using a federal grant, the Arizona Department of Health Services and community groups launched Mental Health First Aid after the 2011 Tucson shooting that killed six people and wounded 13 others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Since then, about 5,500 Arizonans have received the training at no cost.

With the grant running out, Steele and her seatmate, Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, pushed successfully last year for $250,000 in state money to continue the program.

Now Steele is seeking $250,000 to train educators, school staff, coaches, parents, religious leaders and others who work with young people.

Youth Mental Health First Aid trains adults to recognize and respond before a crisis occurs, Steele said.

“They’re going to be the first ones that see when something is going on with a young person,” she said.

Steele’s bill, HB 2490, has been endorsed by the House committees on health and appropriations. It was awaiting action by the full House.

Steve Nagle, a training specialist at the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, said it can be a lot harder to determine what is typical teen behavior versus a mental health challenge.

“It’s kind of a whole different animal to try and recognize youth having mental health issues,” he said.

The eight-hour training is designed to increase mental health literacy while dispelling myths and misconceptions.

“Youth need a lot more encouragement to share their situation and get involved to do something about it,” he said.

The training gives participants an action plan on how to approach a person they may be concerned about, assess if safety is an issue and provide emotional support, he said.

“People aren’t trained to diagnose or treat, but they’re conduits to care,” he said.

Jim Dunn, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Arizona, said behaviors can become so familiar that a loved one may not be able to see the signs of mental illness.

“Sometimes as family members we can be too close to recognize it,” he said.

Dunn said the more tools the community gets, such as the added funding for training, the more barriers can be broken down.

“Part of the training helps to break down the stigma and help people realize it’s much more common than they realize,” he said.

National tragedies such as the Tucson shootings and the 2012 school shootings in Newtown, Conn., have increased the focus on mental illness. Jared Lee Lougher, sentenced to seven life terms for the Tucson shootings, was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Bryan Gibb, director of public education at the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, said mental illness should be treated like a physical illness.

“It’s far more likely you’ll come in contact with someone having a mental health problem or mental health crisis than someone having a heart attack, but many more of us are trained in physical health than mental health,” Gibb said.

“Our goal is to be as ubiquitous, common and accessible as CPR and first aid,” he added.

According to Gibb, 75 percent of cases of mental illness and substance abuse disorders present before age 25.

“Many of the illnesses that impact us tend to first present during adolescence,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to work with adults who work with youth.”

Gibb said since Mental Health First Aid launched in the United States in 2008, 150,000 people have gone through the training across the nation, and he expects that number to increase rapidly.

“The more eyes you have and the more people you have in different places to observe an individual, the more likely you are to see the whole picture,” he said.