Teen Mental Health Certification: Helping Teens Help Each Other
Diana Kloek has been an honors student all her life, but high school has brought a new wave of pressure—encouragement to join lots of clubs, do extra academic work, and get good grades—all designed to build a good college application. Layer on top of that her desire to engage in an active social life, and days can become, as Kloek puts it, “overwhelming.”
“In high school, it can be difficult to keep up with life,” Kloek says. “I understand what it means to feel anxious, and I have seen my friends have mental health struggles.”
Kloek is speaking from the heart, but she has identified a national youth mental health crisis and the subject of a 40-page Advisory released by the U.S. Surgeon General in December 2021.
“Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide—
and rates have increased over the past decade,” says Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. “The COVID-19 pandemic further altered their experiences at home, school, and in the community, and the effect on their mental health has been devastating. The future wellbeing of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation.”
A 16-year-old junior at Eaglecrest High School in Aurora, Kloek represents that next generation. She views high school as a time of many choices and opportunities, all of which are influenced by ubiquitous social media.
“On social media, people post the most perfect version of themselves,” she says. “They have perfect grades and a perfect social life, they belong to so many clubs, and they still have time to volunteer. Comparing yourself to those perfect people is not healthy or realistic.”
She speaks with insight and clarity about these issues in large part due to her newly-earned teen Mental Health First Aid Certification. She earned this credential—and the confidence that comes with it—after a three-session course with certified trainers, sponsored by JEWISHcolorado and the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative powered by JFNA. Jillian Feiger, Director of Jewish Student Connection and the Joyce Zeff Israel Study Tour (IST), spearheaded this pilot program.
“I’m proud of JEWISHcolorado for doing this,” says Feiger. “It is a fundamental part of being Jewish that we help others in the community. The teens are our future, and if we can help them, they can help us.”
Creating the program
The Mental Health First Aid Certification was developed by the National Council for Behavioral Health (which is now known as the National Council for Mental Wellbeing). Feiger participated in the training to certify professionals who work with youth in mental health first aid, ensuring they can better recognize and respond to any person who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis.
After she was certified, Feiger had a thought. “Is this something that our teenagers need?” she asked herself. “Should we train teens in how to help their friends?”
The teen training had been done in other communities, but Feiger started it in the Denver area, working with another certified trainer, Beth Lipschutz, MSW, the Youth Mental Health First Aid Project Coordinator for the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative powered by JFNA. They were joined by a third certified trainer, Carly Coons, LSW, Director of Mental Wellness and Special Programming at Temple Sinai.
Feiger promoted the inaugural program through IST, Jewish Student Connection, and temple confirmation classes. She enrolled a group of 11 teens from high schools around the Denver metro area. All were either sophomores or juniors and were required to attend three sessions over a period of four weeks.
Training the teens
In the first session, the students focused on the ways social media influences mental health. While they acknowledged social media is an integral part of their lives with positive aspects, they also readily recognized that with the positive comes a negative side.
“They understand how important social media is in making important connections,” Feiger says. “From the outside it might look like they love social media, but it was fascinating to hear to what degree they know it affects their mental health in a negative way.”
“On social media, people seem to have it all,” adds Kloek. “But you have to focus on your own accomplishments. We can’t all be perfect.”
In the second session, the trainers took up the subject of suicide by looking at case studies. They discussed how to identify people who might have suicidal thoughts or actions.
“There was a very high level of engagement on this topic,” Feiger says. “The students had great insight and a lot of questions about how they can help.”
“The main takeaway for me was to not shy away from the topic,” says Kloek. “Bringing up the thought of suicide will not put it into someone’s head, and there are ways to talk about suicide that will help people.”
At the third session, students divided into small groups and practiced using skills they had learned by discussing real life scenarios. They reviewed the five steps at the core of their training: look for warning signs; listen up when someone confides in you; ask how they are doing; help them connect to an adult if you think it’s serious; and assure them your friendship is important.
By talking through these strategies in small groups, Kloek says, students formed close bonds with each other.
Looking to the future
Diana Kloek will tell you matter-of-factly that one out of every four teens experiences mental health difficulties before they turn eighteen. To Feiger, Kloek’s willingness to openly discuss mental health confirms the success of the training she has undergone and the certification she has earned.
“If mental health becomes less of a stigma and more of an accepted social concept, and if teens can help their friends, our society will become a better place,” Feiger says. “We tell students they are not therapists or social workers, but we give them the tools to help someone find the people and places where they can have safe conversations.”
Feiger plans to offer the training again and looks ahead to a time when she can bring the first cohort together with the second to discuss how they have used their skills on a daily basis.
Armed with her training, certification, and a list of contacts for people who need help, Kloek says she feels more equipped to support herself and others. Learning mental health first aid has changed her—and for the better.
“I have become a more observant person who would notice the warning signs of mental illness,” she says. “And I am more passionate about letting people in crisis know they are not alone.”