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What resources do staff need to support youth mental health and wellness?

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What resources do staff need to support youth mental health and wellness?

By Selena Levy, director of Training at California School-Age Consortium (CalSAC). 

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we’re highlighting the ways afterschool programs support children and young people as they face challenges including trauma, ACEs, substance use, and beyond. Read the full series here.

Out-of-school time programs play a central role in supporting a young person’s mental health and should be seen as a core component in the mental health system for young people. Youth development staff are the caring adults that help youth heal from trauma, and we are also their advocates when we notice youth who are in distress.

As the California School-Age Consortium (CalSAC) works to support the mental health and wellness needs of out-of-school time staff and young people, I’ve heard and seen how many of the practices staff are implementing in programs, including those that support a young person’s social-emotional skills, support a young person’s mental health. We’ve also learned that there are three key ways to strengthen staff’s knowledge and skills that they need to support mental health and wellness. CalSAC is developing new training curriculum to address this need to strengthen staff’s knowledge and skills, which will be available fall 2019. 

Understand the role of youth development in mental health

There is a growing focus on mental health, especially as many schools and programs have experienced an increase in suicides. This is an opportunity to link youth development practices to supporting a young person’s mental health. Staff need resources to understand the connection between foundational youth development practices they are implementing in their program and how those practices play a role in supporting mental health and wellness. Foundational youth development principles support a young person’s social-emotional skills, build self-esteem, and develops a young person’s problems solving skills—all of which are protective factors that support a young person’s mental health and well-being.

There are limits to the role staff can have in supporting the mental health needs of youth. Recognizing certain symptoms that may require a mental health professional is a needed and important role staff can hold. Staff can also act as a broker of resources, connecting youth and families to partners in the community who specialize in mental health supports.

Normalize mental health

The biggest barrier to supporting staff and young people’s mental health is the stigma that surrounds the terms “mental health.” The stigma is often based on negative or incorrect beliefs about people who experience challenges with their mental health.

One key component to normalizing and de-stigmatizing mental health is understanding the connection between the trauma a young person experiences in their lives, the impact that trauma has on their mental health, and the behaviors the young person externalizes in our programs. When it comes to understanding, it’s important to recognize that it is incredibly common for most people to have experienced some form of trauma in their lives. We can take big steps towards normalizing mental health by understanding the impact of trauma has on a young person and acknowledging how common it is.

The second key to normalizing and de-stigmatizing mental health is to name it and talk about it more openly. Many people in both the mental health field and in youth development think that mental health should be talked about in the same way physical health is talked about—that is, openly, frankly, without judgement, and as a normal part of everyday life.

Lastly, there is a need for staff to engage in their own self-reflection around our own biases and experiences with mental health. The staff who work in our programs often reflect the communities they serve and experience similar trauma and likely have similar biases and they may also experience secondary trauma from working in programs as well. As in other professions, such as nursing, we need to create spaces for staff to engage in practices that support their own mental health and heal from their trauma.

Courageous conversations with families

Family support is often needed for young people to receive the mental health support services they need. Engaging families in these conversations is an experience staff may find to be challenging, even frustrating. The stigma that surrounds mental health extends to our families and it can be difficult for families to hear and accept that their child may need additional support with their mental health. Staff need strategies for engaging in these courageous conversations with families to ensure youth receive the support from their family.

We know this is a complex topic; complex, because there is no one solution. There are multiple components to the work of supporting a young person’s mental health and wellness. Out-of-school time staff and programs are foundational to ensuring young people receive the support and services they need to thrive in school, work, and life. It’s CalSAC’s goal to provide foundational resources to the field statewide to ensure every staff person and every program has the resources they need to support a young person’s mental health.

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