GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — For someone experiencing a mental health disorder, it is more than just a “bad day,” said licensed clinical social worker Cathleen Morris.
“Everyone in this room has ‘mental health.’ Everyone has good days and bad days,” she said, but it’s when the bad days begin to outnumber the good that more care must be taken.
On Friday, Morris helped a group of school nurses, social workers, foster parents and others understand those differences in teens and young adults, and how to provide support, during an all-day session on youth mental health first aid at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s Mainland campus.
“I’m not going to give you a cape. You’re not going to go out and save the world,” Morris, who works at AtlantiCare, told the participants.
But she does expect them to be kind, caring people.
“One of the things that I always include in my training is that you don’t know what somebody is coming to the table with, so we have to treat our young people with kindness,” Morris said. “If you suspect that there is something wrong, ask the question. You could save a life.”
Mental health first aid is a set of skills taught to help people identify the signs of mental health and substance-use issues and to help those people into some level of recovery.
“Teaching them how to recognize what’s outside of typical adolescent development,” Morris said. “I always describe it like CPR for brain health.”
Gina Nastro, of Aberdeen, Monmouth County, works as a nurse in the Neptune City School District and deals with students with varying degrees of mental health issues every day.
“A lot of kids present to the nurse, ‘Oh, my stomach hurts,’ and then you start talking to them and find out something’s going on at home,” Nastro said. “It’s amazing how young it’s affecting people.”
She said she wanted to attend the training to have a better understanding of what to look out for in students, and to share information with teachers in the small K-8 school.
Nastro said she first heard the term “mental health first aid” about a year ago, but she likes the concept.
Morris, director of AtlantiCare Behavioral Health’s school-based youth services program in the Buena Regional School District, said the concept began in Australia nearly two decades ago and came to the United States in 2008, but was updated to serve youth in 2012.
In September 2014, a seventh-grader from Hamilton Township died by suicide.
Letisha Cochran, of Egg Harbor Township, works for the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency, and is working toward a degree in family therapy that she hopes will allow her to interact more with young people. She hopes the class gives her more insight to be able to help children.
“It’s one thing to read about it, but to experience it is different,” Cochran said.
Mental health response training for those dealing with adolescents is on the rise, with the New Jersey School Boards Association last month releasing a report on the topic and making more than 70 recommendations for schools on how to address it. The report cites an increase in teen suicide and the 2018 Parkland, Florida, school shootings as reasons it wanted to study mental health response.
“I personally think, even from my experience initially coming into a school, the focus was on education, education, and now educators are realizing the importance of mental health,” Morris said. “If a student isn’t feeling good about themselves or they’re not feeling good, they’re not going to learn.”
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Morris said she wanted the participants to open their minds to begin noticing the differences between normal teen development and when a teen is in need of extra care. She said she also wants to break down the stigma associated with mental health.
“Somebody who has a physical health condition, everyone wants to run toward that person and help them. When we start talking about mental health, there’s so much stigma that goes with it that people start to run away,” she said.
Morris said participants could gain comfort that mental health problems are very common and resources are scarce, but mental health is a part of overall health care.