Implementing mental health first aid in K-12

Districts work to train educators to spot and respond quickly to signs of mental distress in students.

Purple lanyards offer lifelines to students suffering from anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions in Fauquier County, Virginia. About 400 educators in the school district and 1,000 community members wear the lanyards to show they’ve completed a mental health first-aid course ( that teaches adults how to spot and respond quickly to signs of mental distress in young people.

“It trains staff to discern what’s normal adolescent behavior, or that something is different with a student,” says Frank Finn, assistant superintendent for student services and special education at Fauquier County Public Schools. “They know how to ask hard questions about things like suicide.”

Just as important, these educators know how to get students additional help from school counselors, who can then refer students to outside medical professionals. Recently, an elementary school principal who had just completed the training knew the right questions to ask to determine that a student was having suicidal thoughts. The principal sent the girl to a school counselor for treatment and alerted her parents.

The district began offering the eight-hour training sessions with a $100,000 Project AWARE wellness grant it received from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2014. It has continued to fund the program with local grants and through partnerships with community agencies, such as the Mental Health Association of Fauquier County. Administrators, teachers and staff have completed the training, which the division has helped spread to two neighboring counties, Superintendent David Jeck says. 

“This is embedded in our community now,” Jeck says. “We want to help anyone who is interested in doing something like this.”

Building levels of trust 

Montana has one of the highest rates of suicide of any U.S. state. At rural Jefferson High School, which lost a student to suicide a few years ago, educators have just begun training students in mental health first-aid techniques.

The 270-student building, located in Boulder, was one of eight chosen to pilot a peer-to-peer mental health first-aid program funded by the National Council for Behavioral Health and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation.

A teacher was the first to receive training, and she then trained about 10 other staff members, says Tim Norbeck, the superintendent of Jefferson High School, District No. 1.

Read more: Mental health care tops pillars of school suicide prevention

In the next few weeks, students will begin the training during their 30-minute “zero period” while some of their classmates are still filtering into the building after long bus rides. Educators will teach students how to reduce the stigma around mental illness and how to spot its warning signs. Students will also learn the importance of developing a circle of adults and peers who can help when they or their friends are in crisis, says Norbeck.

“Sometimes, more learning goes on in peer-to-peer interactions, and there’s a certain level of trust,” Norbeck says. “If our young people can come away with some tools that allow them to help their peers and other young adults when they get to college or the workforce, then it’s been successful.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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