Princeton Public School Superintendent Ben Barton understands that students in his district need more than books, computers and classroom learning to get the most out of their education.
“Students need to feel safe,” he said. “They need to feel respected. They also need to have a level of mental health.” Mental health is interconnected with the ability to learn and grow, Barton believes: If schools want their students to get a true education, their mental health must be supported.
“Any staff member on any day can put together an MVP lesson,” Barton said, “but if a student isn’t well with their mental health, they won’t be able to learn. In the end, it’s not about how well we teach. It’s about, ‘Are the students learning? What’s getting in the way of their learning?’”
Like young people around the country, in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, students in Barton’s central Minnesota district faced rising rates of mental illness and addiction. Just a few years into the job, he was interested in bringing a new focus on the overall health of district students, drawing a clear connection between their physical and mental well-being.
“When we were doing an analysis of the programs and the interventions that we had in our school district, it was very clear that we were strong and super proud of what we had to offer,” Barton said, “but there was one gap — and that was in the area of mental health.”
Interested in expanding mental health support options in the district, Barton began doing research. He learned about a program sponsored by the National Council for Behavioral Health called Youth Mental Health First Aid that trains concerned adults in the skills needed to help adolescents experiencing mental health or addiction challenges.
Barton was excited to learn about this option.
“Everybody says, ‘We need to focus on mental health,’” he said. “Then we say, ‘How are you going to do that?’ It’s all this talk but no action.” The Mental Health First Aid program was appealing to him because it was a concrete action that he and his staff could take. If every adult working in the district knew how to identify and respond to mental health and addiction issues, students would be better served, he figured.
“My goal at the time was, ‘How can I get all of our staff Mental Health First Aid certified? I was excited about this idea. I was like, ‘Let’s train ‘em all.’”
Looking for support for this lofty goal, Barton reached out to officials at M Health Fairview’s Northland Medical Center, hoping that they could help the district finance the project. The response from Fairview was enthusiastic. They offered support for the program, and plans were hatched to get it going the next school year.
Then COVID-19 hit, and, like just about everything else, plans for the trainings were put on pause.
Annie Kiel, community health and well-being strategist for M Health Fairview’s community advancement team, said she’d been excited about the prospect of working with Barton and his staff.
“Ben’s commitment to mental health really stuck with me,” she said. “He was so focused on addressing mental health in his school district. But we were never able to make it work due to COVID and the barriers that created.”
In the months after pausing the Princeton program, Kiel learned about Teen Mental Health First Aid, a new program providing in-person training to high school students about common mental health challenges and what they can do to support their own mental health or help a friend who is struggling.
The program was so new that it hadn’t yet been used in Minnesota. As the state slowly started to turn the corner on the pandemic, Kiel knew that it was more important than ever to introduce programs that directly address teen mental health.
“When I learned about the Teen Mental Health First Aid program, Princeton was the first district that came to mind,” she said. “I immediately knew we should circle back to Ben first to see if he was interested in jumping on this program with us.”
Barton was thrilled to hear the news that his district could help Fairview launch the Teen Mental Health First Aid program. He saw it as an ideal opportunity to add to his students’ knowledge and help them learn how to help their peers.
“When they reached out to us,” he said, “It was a quick yes from me. I jumped all over it.”
Though Fairview has experience with Mental Health First Aid — the organization has been offering training to groups in different modules of the program (adult, older adult and youth) since 2014, they were new to the teen program. To ensure that the pilot program in Princeton went smoothly, they hired Chris Shaw, a consultant with extensive experience and training in all aspects of Mental Health First Aid.
Shaw, a comedian and certified peer support specialist, is executive director of The Heart and Mind Connection, a Minnesota-based nonprofit focused on mental health and suicide prevention. Shaw is one of only a handful of professionals trained in the new Teen Mental Health First Aid curriculum.
In order to participate in the Teen Mental Health First Aid program, at least 10 percent of a school’s faculty and staff must complete Mental Health First Aid training. Since Barton had already committed to training 100 percent of the district’s employees, Shaw will hold special staff training sessions in June after the end of the school year.
Another requirement of the Teen Mental Health First Aid training program is that every student in an entire grade complete the program. Starting in the fall of 2021, the district’s sophomore class will complete the Teen Mental Health First Aid training certification program. The courses will be completed during regular health classes in six weekly 45-minute sessions. The trainings will take place on Tuesdays, Shaw explained, when there are four health classes for 10th-graders during the day. The idea is that as each sophomore class in the district completes the training, every member of the student body will be certified.
This full grade-level training approach appeals to Kiel. If such a large percentage of the school takes the training at once, keeping an eye on peers’ mental health will become an accepted part of the culture. “This could help destigmatize mental health issues and help students develop emotional resilience,” she said.
In the Mental Health First Aid training sessions, attendees learn the basics about mental health challenges; how to identify appropriate help; how to help a friend at risk for suicide; how to help in cases of bullying, self-injury, panic attack and violence; how to help a friend struggling with substance use; and how to learn more about recovery and resilience.
“The gist of it is it’s training on covering the common signs of mental illness, substance use, mental health crises, particularly suicide and how to open the conversation with peers,” Kiel explained. “It helping kids learn vital life skills.”
Princeton schools have been meeting in person for most of the year, and Barton said that parents have been informed about the new program. A community meeting will be scheduled so parents can learn more and ask questions.
Shaw said he will speak at the meeting: “I’ll explain, ‘This who I am, this is who we are as an organization, why what we’re doing is important and why this evidence-based program is the right way to go about it.’”
He’s already planning how he will respond if parents express concern about their children participating in the program.
“The answer I’ve come up with is, ‘If your son or daughter was struggling with mental illness, wouldn’t you want one of their friends to know how to help them?’” Shaw said. “Then I’ll add, ‘We’d like your child to go through this training so if one of their friends was struggling they’d know how to help them or get them to the right people and not keep it a secret.”
Shaw, who has lost two friends to suicide, believes that programs like Teen Mental Health First Aid could potentially save lives. He thinks that teens are more likely to confide in their friends when they are struggling. If their peers understand the importance of identifying mental health and substance use issues, they are much more likely to get help before it’s too late.
He’s also hoping that once word gets out about the Princeton district’s program, other schools around the state will be inspired to do the same thing.
Supporting the mental health of students is, he said, “something that’s too important to ignore.” Implementing a Teen Mental Health First Aid program, he added, “takes some effort, but in the end, it’s worth it. We hope that other districts learn about the program and sign up.”
‘Kids have been under the radar’
Even before the pandemic hit Minnesota, mental health concerns were on the rise among young people statewide.
Barton said that his work on a number of local nonprofit boards has made him all too familiar with the negative impact of untreated mental illness. “In Central Minnesota,” he said, “suicide is high on the list.”
While his district hasn’t yet seen a cluster of suicides, Barton said that in his relatively short tenure at Princeton, he has seen plenty of evidence that members of the student body are battling their own demons.
“The most extreme level of impact from mental illness would be suicide or suicidal ideation,” he said, “but you also have school avoidance or anxiety or self-harm. It happens here. We’re not unique to any other school in Minnesota or across the country.” Because Barton said he believes that educators are “in the business of human development,” it’s essential that they keep a close eye on the mental health of their students.
The past pandemic year, with its periods of extreme stress and isolation, has made it difficult to keep a close eye on all students, Barton said. And the option of distance learning, while needed for some students and their families, has only served to further disadvantage some of the most at-risk members of the community.
“I do feel that this year young people have been isolated,” Barton said. “They haven’t had as much human connection as they had in the past.” Building basic connections is important, he believes, but they can be difficult to maintain at a 6-foot distance, behind a mask, or through a computer screen: “It’s been really difficult for us to stay connected with 100 percent of our students, especially those that are doing distance learning.”
Jessica Cici, M Health Fairview medical director of child and adolescent psychiatry, said that the teen years are a critical time in the development of healthy relationships and building resilience.
“Over the past year, kids haven’t been able to engage with each other or with other important adults who aren’t part of their bubble,” Cici said. This forced isolation is a likely reason why Cici said that she her colleagues are experiencing a significant increase in the number of teens seeking help for their mental health: “We’re seeing more severe symptoms.”
The pressure on our collective mental health just keeps building, she added: “After the COVID-19 pandemic passes, we will be seeing a mental health pandemic.”
The world has been turned upside down, and the stressful and shocking news of the day may have turned adult attention away from teens and all but their most pressing needs.
“Kids have been under the radar for many months,” Cici said. “That’s led to more acuity and severity of the illnesses that we’re seeing. We’ve got families in crisis trying to juggle many different responsibilities. It’s hard to get support for your children when you are focused on trying to keep yourself afloat.”
With schools in distance-learning mode for so many months, kids who in normal times might have been flagged for help in school haven’t been getting the attention they need, Cici added.
“Teachers and school counselors are attuned to the signs of depression — signs like teens who are really not engaging with their peers or not showing a lot of motivation or not eating lunch. Some of those things, which can be signs of developing depression, have been going unnoticed.”
Teen Mental Health First Aid training will be an important first step in identifying the young people who need support the most, Cici said. “It will be giving kids the tools they need to identify warning signs in their friends. They’ll practice nonjudgmental listening skills and learn how to help connect their friend with a trusted adult.”
Barton, for one, is excited about the possibilities that this program holds, for kids in his district — and across the state.
“We are very optimistic that this is going to be ground-breaking work and we hope that we can serve as a leader for state of Minnesota and the country,” he said. Once his district has completed the trainings, he hopes to take his show on the road and let state lawmakers know about the program’s successes and possibilities — so that they could provide funding to bring the program to other Minnesota schools: “We hope that by piloting this program, we can educate other school districts and educate our legislators.”