First Response

Program tackles youth mental health challenges
A woman leads a workshop on youth mental health challenges. she is standing in front of a chart; written on it are the words signs and symptoms. Underneath this title are signs and symptoms, including crying, fear, pain, binge drinking and others. The woman is addressing the audience. On the right side of the image, a participant in the workshop looks at the woman.

When youth are experiencing a mental health challenge or other crisis, knowing what to do and how to respond can be difficult. But the Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) training program offered by UNH Extension strives to make it easier for community members to provide young people ages 12 to 18 with the resources to get the help they need.

“Being able to help is very important. It’s a ‘first responder’ situation,” says Gail Kennedy, an Extension specialist who conducts the trainings with fellow Extension specialists Rick Alleva and Thom Linehan. “There are a lot of misconceptions out there about mental health. The course reduces that stigma and increases mental health literacy. The program is open to everyone in the community because everyone has a stake in this.”

Extension staff have been offering the trainings, developed by the National Council on Behavioral Health, since 2014. Demand has increased, according to Kennedy, and this year more than 214 people have participated in the daylong sessions that cover a variety of topics, from recognizing the signs of trauma to substance misuse to suicide and other mental health challenges.

Studies estimate that half of all mental illnesses begin by age 14, Kennedy says. “Youth aren’t necessarily going to recognize what’s going on, and because of the stigma around mental health issues, they may not want to identify themselves as having a challenge. It takes the adults in their lives to help them get proper support and treatment.”

The sessions are free, thanks to a partnership with the New Hampshire Department of Education’s Bureau of Student Wellness and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and participants keep their workbooks to use as a reference.

Here’s what recent participants have to say about the Youth Mental Health First Aid program.

The program had a tremendous systemic impact on our school. It’s powerful having an entire community that cares for our students able to recognize that many of them are experiencing signs of trauma. It really becomes a community effort, with enough exposure to knowledge and a shared vocabulary to make that teamwork happen.


I’ve been volunteering with the Austin 17 House community center in Brentwood for about a year now, and taking the YMHFA training was a natural step. Thanks to the training, we’ve brought kids who’ve come to us with suicidal thoughts to the help they need. We’ve also had kids come in who are worried about a friend. It’s about peers helping peers.


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