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Course focuses on learning to recognize, respond to youth in crisis

Norwich — Danielle Ferrette came to learn how to be a better advocate for the foster children who stay with her family, and to better recognize mental health needs in families she meets with as a home visitor for the town of Colchester.

“I wanted to learn for work and for my personal life,” said Ferrette, an East Haddam resident.

Dannetta Wiggins of New Haven had similar reasons for spending Friday in the youth mental health training class at United Community & Family Services.

She said she would be able to apply what she was learning to help youth connect to mental health services.

“We can become a voice for them,” Wiggins said.

Ferrette and Wiggins were among 12 people taking the class, among them UCFS staff and people who work with youth in their jobs, as volunteers and at home.

“This isn’t for clinicians. It’s for regular community members who interact with children, to help them recognize mental health issues,” said Mary Kate Mason, spokeswoman for the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Youth mental health first-aid training has been available in Connecticut for several years, she said, but has become widespread since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in 2012.

Gun control legislation passed in the wake of that tragedy required DMHAS to provide the training to all school districts statewide.

Once that was completed, Mason said, training classes have continued to be offered for coaches, scout leaders, leaders of church-affiliated groups and others.

“People are asking for training,” she said. “We had 1,293 people trained in youth mental health in 2015.”

The youth-focused course, intended for those who work with 13- to 18-year-olds, is a counterpart to the adult mental health first-aid course, both offered through an international program, www.MentalHealthFirstAid.org.

Mason said that, in addition to the seven DMHAS staff members trained as youth mental health first-aid teachers, there are more than 70 other certified instructors statewide also teaching the classes.

Jeffrey Montague, director of integrated health and wellness for DMHAS, said the key difference between the youth and adult courses is in the attention given to distinguishing the difference between typical adolescent issues and a possible mental health crisis.

“The youth class is more focused on the developmental stages,” said Montague, who taught the class at UCFS.

During the class, Montague emphasized that responding to a youth in crisis doesn’t mean taking on the role of therapist.

“It’s about learning to assess," he said. "It does not teach people to diagnose or provide treatment.”

Instead, students in the course learn that their role is to listen to someone in crisis and then connect them with professionals who can help.

Youth facing a crisis have the best chance of recovering when their mental illness is recognized and treated at its earliest stages, Montague said.

He presented statistics showing that 22 percent of youth have some sort of mental health disorder, including attention deficit disorder, depression, anxiety and eating disorders and substance abuse.

“But not everybody who is having some difficulty has a mental disorder,” Montague added.

He advocated taking a balanced approach to mental health issues — not ignoring or stigmatizing them but also not overemphasizing them — and urged people to avoid using a mental-illness label every time a teenager turns moody.

“We shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions about seeing things as illness,” Montague said. “It’s important to remember that people are survivors. People are resilient, and that goes for youth as well as adults. Part of why we’re all together today is to be more caring and compassionate.”

One police officer who took the course, Mason said, was able to apply the information directly in dealing with a young person who was “acting out and committing criminal behavior.”

Because of the lessons the officer learned, he recognized that the youth was suffering from a mental health problem and got him the help he needed instead of arresting him, she said.

During the course, students practice asking difficult questions such as “Are you going to kill yourself?”

Asking the question directly is the most effective way to take control of the situation, Mason said.

“We don’t want people to ignore something because they don’t know what to do,” she said.

j.benson@theday.com

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