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Mental health first-aid kit: Lady Gaga is working on high school program to reduce stigma

Eight schools just finished a pilot program to help teens deal with mental health issues, and teachers say it's helping kids.
Valley High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, is one of eight high schools participating in the teen Mental Health First Aid program. Teachers there say students have genuinely benefited from the courses.
Valley High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, is one of eight high schools participating in the teen Mental Health First Aid program. Teachers there say students have genuinely benefited from the courses.@MrMagness/Instagram
/ Source: TODAY

Most high school students learn some sort of first aid in health class, whether it’s the Heimlich maneuver, how to treat a wound or CPR.

But now, more health experts, teachers and young people are pushing for a different type of first aid lesson in high schools: mental health first aid — a toolkit for teens to learn how to help a friend in crisis.

An initiative called teen Mental Health First Aid, backed by superstar and mental health advocate Lady Gaga, just finished its pilot program in eight high schools across the country and is slated to expand this fall.

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Lady Gaga has spoken about dealing with PTSD, suicidal thoughts and unhealthy behavior. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

"I know what it means to have someone support me and understand what I’m going through, and every young person in the world should have someone to turn to when they’re hurting," Lady Gaga said in a Facebook video. "It saved my life, and it will save theirs."

The teen Mental Health First Aid pilot program for young adults teaches young adults and people who work with them how respond to the signs of mental illness and substance use. It’s run by the National Council for Behavioral Health and supported by the Born This Way Foundation, a nonprofit co-founded by Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, dedicated to empowering young people.

It comes at an important time, amid a national opioid crisis that has affected kids and young adults, as well as alarming rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders among young people.

“Young people are often, surprise, surprise, not turning to an adult when they have a problem. They’re turning to a friend. So if we’re only preparing adults to deal with these situations, we’re just missing a huge piece of the puzzle,” Rachel Martin, deputy executive director of the Born This Way Foundation, told TODAY.

Half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The Born This Way Foundation co-led research into some 2,000 young people and found that students are looking for more tools to deal with mental health issues.
The Born This Way Foundation co-led research into some 2,000 young people and found that students are looking for more tools to deal with mental health issues.Getty Images

“Young people want these programs. They want to learn coping skills. They want to help their friends. They’re hungry for these tools, we just need to do a better job of helping them,” Martin said.

Andrew Magness, a teacher at Valley High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, one of the eight schools picked for the pilot program, told TODAY that teaching the program to the school’s senior class was one of the most fulfilling parts of his teaching career so far.

“To be honest, it was probably one of the most satisfying and toughest things I’ve done in education. I’ve been a teacher for 13 years at Valley the entire time, and the reason it was amazing was we didn’t know how students wouldn’t react. It was surprising how serious the kids took it, how thankful they were, how helpful they found it,” he said.

After the program, the teacher said he had at least one student approach him asking for help with a mental health issue. Dozens of others told him they wished they had learned the skills sooner in life.

He said the best part of the program is its straightforward approach.

“The framework and the fidelity of it is the same way you would teach CPR,” he said. "It’s not like we’re training these kids to be doctors or to psychoanalyze people. We’re trying to give people a first aid kit for mental health.”

Originally founded in Australia in 2000, the program was brought to the U.S. in 2007 by the National Council for Behavioral Health. Since then, more than 1.6 million adults who work with young people — like teachers, community leaders and others — have been trained. Now, the focus is to educate and help teens themselves with the help of Lady Gaga's nonprofit, the Well Being Trust foundation and others.

Betsy Schwartz, vice president for public education and strategic initiatives at the National Council for Behavioral Health, oversees the program.

“The curricula has an action plan that’s very concrete that teaches the teens five things to remember,” she said.

  1. Look for warning signs.

  2. Ask their friend how they are.

  3. Listen up — teens learn how to really listen in a way that will really open the conversation.

  4. Connect with an adult.

  5. Recognize the importance of their friendship.

Each participating school agrees to train 100% of one grade, either sophomores, juniors or seniors, as well as 10% of staff.

Students learn how to listen to their friends, talk to each other, connect a friend with a trusted adult and more.

“We know anecdotally from the schools that have piloted the program that it's already changing lives. It's really normalizing mental health conversations and it’s really enabling youth to really feel OK asking their friend how they’re doing,” Schwartz said.

Students also learn tactical things such as the “recovery position,” or how to ensure a friend who’s passed out due to drinking or drugs doesn’t accidentally choke until medics arrive, as well as information about the Good Samaritan Law, which provides basic legal protection in some states for someone helping a person who is injured or in danger without fear of getting in trouble.

On Monday, Cynthia Germanotta, president of Born This Way Foundation, was appointed as the WHO's goodwill ambassador for mental health. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty ImagesFabrice Coffrini / AFP - Getty Images

Lady Gaga’s star power and openness about mental health, as well as her mother’s advocacy, have been crucial to getting the program off the ground.

“Lady Gaga’s endorsement and the fact that she’s been so open talking about her own mental health problems and about the importance of teens taking care of their mental health is a very important part of the visibility of bringing the teen version in the U.S.,” Schwartz said.

In fact, Lady Gaga’s mom was just named the World Health Organization’s Goodwill Ambassador for Mental Health.

Johns Hopkins University will collect anonymized results from the pilot program and evaluate its success. The program is expected to expand to about more 20 schools in the fall.