A Napa agency is planning to roll out a new program this fall that teaches older teenagers the skills needed to identify peers who may be developing serious mental health problems.

Even in the best of circumstances, adolescence is a volatile period, but for some teens the emotional issues run deeper, said Terri Segal, a therapist with Aldea Children and Family Services. “A lot of mental health conditions can start fairly young,” she said.

Aldea is planning to partner with select local schools and youth organizations to offer Youth Mental Health First Aid, an offshoot of a program for adults that has trained 200 Napa County teachers, first responders and residents over the past two years.

“The focus will be on how to recognize someone in mental health crisis and make an early intervention and referral,” said Mark Bontrager, Aldea’s executive director. The goal is to catch small problems before they become big ones, he said.

“About one in five people will suffer mental illness during their youth,” Bontrager said.

Aldea will be sounding out schools and youth-serving organizations to see if they would like to be part of the program. By training a group of teen leaders on a campus, “we could create a new level of awareness (for mental health) for an entire school,” Bontrager said.

Participants will lbe older teens who are leaders in their church, youth and school groups, Segal said. They will get eight hours of training on how to assess risk, listen non-judgmentally, give reassuring information and encourage their peers to get professional help, she said.

Because there are so many developmental issues occurring in the teen years, a lot of normal changes can appear as mental health problems, according to Segal.

It’s normal for a teen to isolate from their family and spend more time with their friends, but perhaps not so normal if they also begin rejecting their friends, she said.

For adults, an average of 10 years elapse from the onset of symptoms until a person first gets help, Segal said. Often a person doesn’t know they have a problem. For many, the stigma of mental illness deters reaching out, she said.

The idea of using teens as lay outreach workers is a new one. Across the U.S., some 50,000 adults have been trained in Mental Health First Aid since 2008. The program was scaled for teens two years ago.

Sponsors note that lack of timely mental health intervention has often been a factor in some of the most notorious school shootings in America.

A $75,000 grant from Napa Valley Vintners funded the first two years of mental health first-aid training. Aldea has applied for more Auction Napa Valley funds to continue and expand the program to teens, Bontrager said.

The program uses a clip from the documentary, “The Bridge,” about suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge to emphasize how important a person sensitive to mental health issues can be, Segal said.

In the movie, a young man who survived a jump says he was visibly distraught as he rode on a bus to the bridge, then lingered on the deck, looking down at the water below.

At any point, if anyone had showed concern and asked how he was, he might have abandoned his plan, he said.

“Everybody was really in their own little world,” Segal said. “The training is: Let’s notice each other. Let’s not be afraid to ask.”

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