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Mental illness course at DWU teaches ways to respond

Daily Republic - 9/12/2018

Sept. 12--Representatives from the Sioux Falls-based Helpline Center came to Dakota Wesleyan University's campus on Tuesday to teach an eight-hour course on how to help young people going through a mental health crisis.

The course, called "Youth Mental Health First Aid Training," was brought to DWU after the Helpline Center alerted Anne Kelly, chair of the Mitchell Area Suicide Prevention Coalition and DWU's psychology and behavioral sciences departments, that it was ready to give the training.

In the past, the Helpline Center has given presentations on mental health first aid for adults, but this is the first time a course specifically on youth mental health has been offered at DWU by the Helpline Center.

"I think right now we're seeing an increase in rates of depression and anxiety among youth," Kelly said. "It's important to be able to recognize and respond to signs and symptoms. And youth mental health first aid is an excellent training that provides that kind of information."

A total of 18 teachers, students, social workers, coaches and others who work with adolescents enrolled in the course, which was held this week because it is both National Suicide Awareness Month and Suicide Prevention Week.

"Mental illness is very common, but there are so many people that may not be aware of what mental illness is, or if it does come up, they may want to avoid it because it's hard to talk about, said Sheri Nelson, the Helpline Center's suicide prevention director. "I think that the more open we are about it, the more help that people will get."

The course covered different types of mental illness and their symptoms, as well as addiction and suicide ideation. The idea behind all of this was to not only start a conversation about mental health, but to recognize symptoms in and know how to help adolescents, in particular, by looking at adolescent development.

Nelson said that there is a fine line between what is normal adolescent behavior and what is symptomatic of a mental illness.

"It's normal for an adolescent to maybe pull away from their family and spend more time with friends," she said. "But when an adolescent isolates from both family and friends and kind of cuts ties, that's where there may be problems."

Much of the course was based on participant interaction, some of which is aimed at getting those involved to better understand what a person with a mental illness is going through. For example, one activity involved a scripted conversation in which two people interacted with one another and a third person said things in their ears to simulate an auditory hallucination.

Nelson said she thinks people learn better during these courses when they're doing something interactive.

Amanda Fickes, a graduate student studying social work at the University of South Dakota who enrolled in the course to get more skills in her field, said the interactive nature of the course was one of her favorite aspects.

"A lot of the activities that they've done have drawn out a lot of the experience and ideas of all the participants," she said. "That's been really neat, to hear everyone's perspectives, experience and cultural difference and apply them different places."

Fickes said the diverse professional backgrounds of the people who attended the course. Most worked with kids or teenagers in some capacity, but not necessarily primarily as mental health professionals.

"Everyone that is here today, we look at them as mental health 'first-aiders,'" Nelson said. "So, people that can help in a crisis until the professional help arrives. Just like if someone needs CPR, someone would step up and help in that crisis until an ambulance comes."

For Sarah Lippert, the volunteer connections coordinator for the Helpline Center who taught the course alongside Nelson, making sure talk includes positive perspectives is critical not only during the course, but in the larger discussion about mental health.

"Every day, we have a chance to break stigma surrounding mental health and shed light on it in a positive way, rather than negative, because I feel as though mental health always gets the negative side of everything," Lippert said. "It's important to realize that there's actually a lot of positive to it, and that recovery is possible."

Also in honor of Suicide Prevention Week, the Helpline Center hosted the first event in a 10-week suicide survivors program on Tuesday night and will hold a panel on suicide awareness on Thursday, both in Sioux Falls.


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