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What is Youth Mental Health First Aid?

January 18, 2024

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a program run in Australia (with similar programs all over the world) that considers mental health problems in the same way as a physical emergency. The course teaches participants to become Mental Health First Aiders, qualified people who can spot and approach those with either; 

  • A developing mental health problem 
  • A worsening of an existing Mental Health problem 
  • Or someone going through a crisis

The main skill set participants walk away with is learning how to have a conversation with someone in any of these states and how to get them the help they need.

The program is split into many different courses, depending on whether you’re training for a specific problem, such as gambling, or attempting to manage mental health in your workplace better. However, MHFA is typically split into two main disciplines — standard and youth.


Why treat youth separately?

Youth Mental Health First Aid recognises a difference between the adult and developing brain. Targeted primarily at young teenagers, the course covers a multitude of problems that, while not unique to young people alone, come with their own particular complications. 

For one, when talking to younger people, it’s important to keep in mind that their environment and experiences differ greatly from those of adults. Schooling expectations, parenting, friends and peer groups, puberty, sexuality, and career aspirations are all very new, exciting, and daunting prospects. A lot happens in these transitionary years between childhood and adulthood that form our early expectations and ability to cope with the outside world. 


Growing brains and shifts in behaviour.

The other very prominent difference is in brain chemistry. Adolescents have (typically) been seen as hormonally challenged individuals who pose a risk to themselves and others. However, according to Dr. Eva Telzer, Professor of Psychology at the Developmental Social Neuroscience Lab in North Carolina, this view is changing. What has been seen as the marks of immaturity could actually be cognitive, behavioural, and neurological ways of coping with the outside world, patterns that get imprinted on the developing brain, telling it how to act and address situations. This is partly why adolescents, more than any other group, look to their peers and older parental figures for guidance on how to behave. 

This is a state that continues from birth and (in a way) throughout our lives. But our childhood is the most crucial in cementing this development. In the first five years, the brain develops faster than at any other time in our lives, forming a lot of the essential building blocks that help us understand our environment and form relationships. 

In our very early childhood development, we learn through play and association, relying on parental figures to tell us how to approach the world. Our coping mechanisms are also formed in this early period: how we deal with stress, failure, anxiety, joy, food, etc. 

As we grow older, one of the most important social changes is the way we shift from family and parents towards our friends and other peer groups that we choose ourselves. These help form our ability to resolve conflict and deal with peer pressure. In aligning themselves with groups, adolescents undergo a change in identity, changing their appearance and ideas to fit with their chosen groups.

Physically, the brain changes during this time. As children develop through to young adults, the number of connections in the brain begin ‘pruning away’ whilst other connections are strengthed. This period is equally critical because many of our behaviours are moulded into their final adult phase at this time. 

One of the most fundamental changes happens because the prefrontal cortex, the reasoning centre, is still developing. The amygdala takes over the role of this vital centre, although its primary function is controlling our emotions, impulses, instincts, and aggression levels. This is why the developing brain often attacks problem-solving from an emotional reasoning level, as critical brain functions are still being formed. This can lead to quick, often confused responses as adolescents try to judge the proper response by applying emotional logic and reasoning.

Cognitive changes happen as children move from concrete, accepted thinking to learn how to think about abstract concepts, as well as analyse and critique their own thoughts. They begin to question their own thinking as well as accepted adult logic, often critiquing authoritative, ethical, socio-normative, and religious teachings that form their early accepted background. Adolescents begin to take more risks, judging the perimeters of their world, often making poor decisions to test previously held assumptions and form a new framework of accepted logic in their later years. This process continues throughout development up to age twenty-five and, in many ways, continues throughout their lives.


How common are mental illnesses in adolescents? 

Adolescents are among the highest-risk groups when it comes to mental illnesses. Around one in five Australians will experience some form of mental illness in their lives, and around half of these episodes will begin before age eighteen. Of those with mental illnesses, only around 23% will actively seek any professional help on their own.

When mental illnesses start in early life, they can affect a young person’s education and development. This impacts their later adult occupation and relationships, particularly as they begin to think about and start their first romantic and sexual relationships, which decide how they relate to others later on in life. Other social relationships are defined, including those with our peers and our behavioural pattern towards substances, as adolescents are exposed to alcohol and drug consumption by peer groups.


What’s included in Youth Mental Health First Aid?

Youth Mental Health First Aid covers a range of mental health conditions that also pop up in the Standard Mental Health First Aid course. This includes recognising and dealing with;

  • Depression 
  • Anxiety 
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Eating disorders
  • Psychosis
  • Substance abuse 
  • Self-injury 
  • Panic attacks
  • Traumatic events
  • Aggressive behaviours

Within the Youth Mental Health First Aid course, these topics are all addressed from the viewpoint of young, developing minds. In a typical course, these topics are covered over four modules, each looking at a specific concern and developing an action plan to approach this.


Who is this course for?

This course is designed for anyone dealing with adolescents, whether they’re school teachers, counsellors, youth leaders, youth workers, parents, or anyone else involved with young people. This is a credited course, after which participants can receive a certificate in Youth Mental Health First Aid. If you’re looking to progress your career or simply better communicate with adolescents, a YMHFA qualification can really help. 


Current courses being offered.

Currently, we have a course being offered on the 1st of March at the PCYC building in Emerald, Australia. This is a two-day course, with part of the course offered online. Registration is still open, although if you’re interested, we suggest signing up now to complete the online component before the 1st of March and receive your full certification. 

For more details or to book your Youth Mental First Aid course, you can register here. Search for bookings on the 1st March in Emerald to enroll, or to find other courses near you.


Sites sourced:

  • Abrams, Zara. “What neuroscience tells us about the teenage brain” in American Psychological Association Vol. 53, No. 5. Date Published: 1st July 2022. 
  • “Alain de Botton on A THERAPEUTIC JOURNEY” on The School of Life YouTube Channel. Date Posted: 16th January 2024. Site Link: http://tinyurl.com/6t9h4t83
  • “Brain development in pre-teens and teenagers” on raisingchildren-net-au. Date Accessed: 16th January 2024. Site Link: http://tinyurl.com/ntzm99my.  
  • “Child development: the first five years” on healthykids.  Date Accessed: 16th January 2024. Site Link: http://tinyurl.com/49d826fr
  • Kelly, Claire, Kitchener, Betty, Jorm Anthony. Youth Mental Health First Aid Manual: 4th ed. Date Published: 2017. 
  • “Parenting Teens – The Teenage Brain” on KidsHealth. Date Accessed: 16th January 2024. Site Link: http://tinyurl.com/w3ywdckr
  • “The Growing Child: Adolescent 13 to 18 Years” on John Hopkins Medicine. Date Accessed: 16th January 2024. Site Link: http://tinyurl.com/32hr43z6
  • “What Is Early Childhood Development? A Guide to the Science (ECD 1.0)” on Centre on the Developing Child: Harvard University. Date Accessed: 16th January 2024. Site Link: http://tinyurl.com/ymzstv5c
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