Mental Health Education for Students in Alabama

You work in northern Alabama. Can you tell us more about the need to provide mental health training in your community?

Ian: There is a great need for mental health training in the North Alabama area. On a weekly basis the Prevention Educators at Crisis Services of North Alabama are at schools, businesses, universities, and police stations training people to notice the warning signs for suicide, and how to talk with that individual, and get them help. There is an overwhelming need for mental health training for school staff in the area.

Before I ask the students to begin Friend2Friend, I ask them to write down at least one question that they have about suicide or mental health. On a regular basis, these questions’ complexity range from “how many people die by suicide every day,” to “how do I cope with my depression,” or “how do I help a parent who is struggling with suicidal thoughts?”

How have you fostered a partnership between Crisis Services of North Alabama and local schools?

The 2018-2019 academic year was the first that Crisis Services of North Alabama offered suicide prevention education to students and faculty in Morgan and Limestone Counties. During the summer of 2018, I met with school board personnel to show them the curriculum and what the simulation would consist of. After their approval, I personally met with each schools’ administration and counselors to show them the curriculum that their students would be taught.

For 2019-2020, the administrators, teachers, and counselors have been extremely thrilled to have us come back into their schools and classrooms to teach the students!

How did you hear about Friend2Friend? What made you decide to use it as a training tool with students?

The Alabama Department of Public Health made the executive decision to implement Friend2Friend throughout the state. I particularly like using it because it simplifies how to use active listening skills and persuade a friend to talk to an adult for help in 4 easy to learn and remember steps.

How have you been implementing Friend2Friend?

When I implement Friend2Friend, I iterate to school counselors that I need to teach every student in one particular grade. Typically, we allow the counselor to decide which grade they prefer, but if they are uncertain, I inform them that I usually teach eighth and tenth-grade students.

The counselor and I focus on one particular classroom that all of the students in that particular grade must attend that year, in order to pass – for instance, an 8th grade English or history class. I make sure that I am there on the first day to act in a supportive role if a student is visibly upset by the painful reminder of the loss of a loved one to suicide, in addition to helping the students set up their accounts and maintain consistent pre-survey and post-survey data.

What makes Friend2Friend unique compared to other training methods you use or have used in the past?

All of the students appreciate that Friend2Friend is set up in a gaming format! They emphasize that in the post-survey responses, as well as in the classroom, that learning and thinking about the topic is less stressful this way.

What sorts of reactions do you get from students?

All of the students that complete the Friend2Friend simulation truly enjoy it! They enjoy it so much that they inquire if there are other scenarios, in addition to the one with Ana and Michael. Some examples that they would like to see include substance addiction, abuse, bullying, and the death of a parent because they are uncertain of how to help their friends that are struggling with these issues.

What are the changes you’ve noticed in the schools you work in?

From November 2018 until May 2019 I observed major changes in students’ feelings of unpreparedness to talk to a friend that they are worried about, notice the warning signs of suicide, or to help a friend. One question prompts students to rate their preparedness to Recognize when a friend’s physical appearance is a sign of being stressed out. In the pre-survey, 45% of students felt prepared, and after they completed Friend2Friend, then 68% felt prepared.

Another question that rates preparedness is Help a friend who is thinking about suicide find an adult who can help. The pre-survey showed only 70% felt they were prepared, yet in the post-survey, they indicated that they felt Friend2Friend helped them increase their preparedness to 75%.

And lastly, there was a huge increase in students’ preparedness to Recommend to a stressed-out friend that they talk with an adult who can help. The pre-survey data for that prompt was 44% felt prepared, afterward, that percentage rose to 66%. It’s great to see that students are feeling more prepared to handle situations where they will talk with their friends who are in distress.

We hope other schools find Ian’s experience useful when thinking about how to approach mental health topics and suicide prevention curriculum with students. You can learn more about Friend2Friend here. Many thanks to Ian and Crisis Services of Northern Alabama.

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