Kira Eicher likened youth mental health first aid to CPR, comparing helping a young person with a mental disorder or mental health crisis to applying chest compression until EMTs arrive.

“Then our job is done,” Eicher said.

A mental health professional with the Connecticut-based health service organization Health360, Eicher led a free Youth Mental Health First Aid USA training session at the Fayette County Behavioral Health Administration in South Union Township.

“Professional help is not always on hand,” Eicher told the 10 or so trainees who wanted to learn more about how to help in a crisis, a contingent including Chestnut Ridge Counseling Services staff, a college psychology student and a pastor, with several mandated reporters in the group.

Eicher cited Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) data stating that among U.S. adolescents (aged 13-18) with any mental disorder, more than one in five (22.2 percent) had a severe-impact disorder.

Eicher also noted that mental health problems often develop during adolescence, adding that a teen’s brain isn’t yet fully developed and won’t be until their mid-20s.

“We have to help as best as we can,” said Eicher.

Eicher had trainees define and identify risk factors for and symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eating disorders, substance use disorders and anxiety by referencing a book on mental health first aid published by the National Council for Behavioral Health.

Jody Johnson, program manager for Family Based Services – HOPE Network at Chestnut Ridge Counseling Services, said that general symptoms of a possible mental health challenge could be loss of interest in favorite activities, lapses in personal hygiene and withdrawal from peers.

“The biggest thing is not to ignore any of those things,” Johnson said.

The Youth Mental Health First Aid USA manual Eicher referenced in her training session recommends an “ALGEE” action plan: assess for risk of suicide or harm, listen nonjudgmentally, give reassurance and information, encourage appropriate professional help, and encourage self-help and other support strategies.

Listening nonjudgmentally may consist of asking questions that show genuine caring, patience if the young person struggles to communicate, refraining from interrupting and minimal prompts when necessary.

Johnson said Uniontown Area School District approved Eicher to provide mental health first aid training and noted that it is geared toward people like teachers, cafeteria workers, custodians and bus drivers who don’t have a mental health background but do have interactions with youth.

Eicher said this was her second Youth Mental Health Aid USA training and that she’ll continue to offer trainings monthly through July in conjunction with Chestnut Ridge Counseling Services and independently afterward, having been trained to be a program instructor through Health360 and AmeriCorps as part of a nationwide campaign by the National Council for Behavioral Health.

“Empathy is huge,” Eicher said.

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