Adults sometimes forget how hard it is to be an adolescent. Think about what’s going on at that time in a kid’s life. The transition from childhood to adulthood involves enormous physical, emotional, and intellectual changes. While all this is going on adolescents are assuming the burden of being an independent functional member of the community responsible for making their own life decisions. While most young people make the transition successfully, every kid experiences a crisis at some point during this time of life. They often need the help of caring adults to ensure those challenges don’t lead to a further downward spiral.

Recently about 25 youth workers from organizations and schools serving Greater Fall River came together to receive training on how to respond when a young person is actively in crisis. The School Community Partnership of Greater Fall River Partners for a Healthier Community sponsored a Youth Mental Health First Aid Training at St. Vincent’s Home for Children on May 22.

Youth Mental Health First Aid is an eight hour course designed to teach parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, school staff, peers, neighbors, health and human services workers, and other caring citizens how to help an adolescent (age 12-18) who is experiencing a mental health or addictions challenge or is in crisis. The course introduces common mental health challenges for youth, reviews typical adolescent development, and teaches a 5-step action plan for how to help young people in both crisis and non-crisis situations. Topics covered include anxiety, depression, substance use, disorders in which psychosis may occur, disruptive behavior disorders (including AD/HD), and eating disorders.

Michaela Gagne Hetzler, a School Adjustment Counselor at Diman Regional Vocational High School and a Co-Chair of the School Community Partnership explained, “Most of us would initially know how to help someone experiencing a heart attack, by administering CPR or calling 911. But not enough of us know how to respond to a young person who is in mental health distress, such as someone having a panic attack or showing signs of substance abuse. This training teaches caring adults to safely and responsibly identify and address an underlying mental health concern.”

The training leads to improved understanding and provides the framework for an action plan that teaches people to safely and responsibly identify and address a potential mental illness or substance use disorder.

Maura Weir was the trainer at the St. Vincent’s session. A native of Dorchester, she received her training in youth mental health in Australia and Ireland. She described her job working with kids as “I go into the river of suicide and pull them out, hand them off to someone else to help them longer term. But I also want to go upstream and see what is causing kids to fall into the river in the first place.”

A key element of the training is ALGEE — a mnemonic device for Mental Health First Aid’s 5-step Action Plan. Youth workers or any adult who is in a position to respond to an adolescent in crisis can follow these steps:

Assess Risk for suicide or harm

Listen non-judgmentally

Give reassurance and information

Encourage appropriate professional help

Encourage self help and support strategies.


The ALGEE approach stresses the importance of early intervention to help prevent the challenges faced by a troubled adolescent from deepening and leading to negative life outcomes such as suicide and self-harm, substance use, anxiety, and other social problems faced by teens.

Youth Mental Health First Aid is based on an Australian program developed in response to a rash of youth suicides in that country. More than 1 million people – youth workers, teachers, parents, first responders, and other concerned members of the community -- across the United States have been trained in Mental Health First Aid by a dedicated base of more than 12,000 Instructors. For more information about Youth Mental Health First Aid go to

Michael Coughlin is the Media and Outreach Coordinator for Greater Fall River Partners for a Healthier Community.