According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 20 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 experience severe mental disorders in a given year, and half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14.
Mental health issues in youth used to be written off as a stage or phase a child was in, but as the severity and prevalence of mental health issues increase, new steps need to be taken to confront the problems. The Warwick Police Department held an eight-hour training session last Friday to better prepare 16 officers in handling children and adolescents who are suffering from mental health challenges.
Captain Joseph Coffey said, “As police officers, we are in a unique position to respond to these situations with confidence. We can then properly direct people to the right professionals and better dictate the issues that arose to the professionals. Part of our job is to intervene in those issues that affect our community. There is a prevalence in our youth.”
The program, Youth Mental Health First Aid, was developed by the National Council for Behavioral Health and began in 2013. In Warwick, Captain Coffey, Mary Cimini and Katie Milstead facilitated the training at the police department from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Those in attendance included School Resource Officers and members of the Mental Health Crisis Response Team. The training aimed to educate the officers on the warning signs and risk factors involved with youth mental health sufferers as well as the best ways to approach the sufferer and situation.
“Similar to CPR, participants learn a five-step action plan to help young people who are developing a mental health problem or in crisis … training in Mental Health First Aid builds confidence in helping an individual experiencing a mental health challenge, reduces negative or distancing attitudes towards individuals with mental illnesses, and increases mental health literacy,” a press release explained.
“We are thrilled to introduce Youth Mental Health First Aid to our police officers. The program will teach police officers to recognize and respond when youth may be experiencing the early stages of a mental challenge or in a related crisis,” Mayor Scott Avedisian said in a statement.
The training not only helps participants become informed on how to handle situations involving those suffering from mental illnesses, but also works to reduce the stigma placed on those individuals.
Coffey said, “The popular media tends to construe violence with mental issues, but the issue is not just with people in manic or psychosis; that is actually the minority of our mental health cases. In Warwick, there are kids who just aren’t coping well or don’t understand what is happening. Mental issues can start at an adolescent age. It has more impact to reach people at the early stages of mental health issues than to wait until the problem is in a later stage where the consequences could be more severe.”
During the training, Cimini assured, “Our belief is that approaching the topic of mental health is most appropriate and beneficial when a youth is not in crisis. There is more of an impact before and it could possibly prevent a crisis from occurring.”
She said it is beneficial to “notice and check in.” This is a system in which if a child or teen seems to be acting out of the ordinary, just making sure things are OK. Some of the examples provided are a student always raising their hand who abruptly stops speaking in class or a youth that is always on time for everything and is now consistently tardy or absent from either school, practice or other activities.
Milstead has held training programs with school administrators, educators, guidance counselors as well as for social workers and case managers.
More information on mental health issues can be found at the National Alliance on Mental Illness web page, www.nami.org, the state’s of Rhode Island’s Department of Behavioral Healthcare’s website, www.bhddh.ri.gov, or the National Council for Behavioral Health at www.thenationalcouncil.org. If you are suffering from suicidal thoughts, call the Rhode Island Samaritans crisis hotline at 272-4044 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK: (800) 273-8255.