It’s not unusual for teenagers to struggle with depression, anxiety and substance abuse – problems students are reluctant to discuss with their parents or teachers. The situation resonates with pop star Lady Gaga, who is funding a new approach to teen mental health – a program being tested at eight schools nationwide – two of them here in Virginia.
As a young woman, Lady Gaga admits she struggled with panic attacks and thoughts of suicide – problems that led her to write Born That Way – a song that promotes self-esteem.
“I’m on the right track, baby,” she sings, “I was born this way.”
Sadly, she says, there was no help for mental illness when she was in school, but she wants to change that by sharing a program called Teen Mental Health First Aid. It trains students to watch for warning signs in their friends.
“We see a shift in their thoughts and their feelings or in their behaviors that get in the way of them being able to go about their life," says Sarah Elaine Hart, director of counseling at Charlottesville High School. "As a friend, you might see that someone is just not acting like themselves.”
Since she started work there four years ago there have been no suicides, but she knows that’s a risk for adolescents.
“Unfortunately we know nationwide suicide is the second leading cause of death after accidents, so we always have to be on the lookout, and we always have to take any possibility of suicidal thoughts very seriously,” she says.
One in five teens will have a mental health problem in any given year. Few feel comfortable discussing it with their parents or teachers. Students David Green and Lamont Bullard say faculty members don’t know what’s happening in their lives outside the classroom.
“People could be having domestic abuse issues or relationship problems outside of school. It’s not just here,” Green explains.
“They don’t know what my life is like outside school,” Bullard adds. “They see me once or twice in the hallway, and then I go home.”
With support from Region 10, the local mental health agency, Hart and her colleagues spent the last school year teaching 250 students – the entire sophomore class – how to help friends who may be struggling.
“What was the next thing after you’ve asked?” Hart asks during a review.
“You’ve got to listen to what they have to say,” Green replies.
Students learn the best ways to approach their friends and guide them to an adult they trust.
“In the action plan they’re taught what to do, how to get someone connected to appropriate help,” Hart explains.
The program, which was developed in Australia, provides materials for teachers and students. Hart describes "art work created by teenagers to express what they were feeling when they were going through a mental health problem, some really fantastic videos, but at its core it’s really just three 75-minute conversations about mental health and an action plan of what to do if you’re concerned about a friend.”
Already, she says it appears to be working.
“Even within the first week of talking about mental health problems, we did see some sophomores who were in the class come to seek support for themselves or a friend, and I think it’s starting to change that conversation in that it’s okay to get help. It’s okay to get support – that everyone goes through something at some point.”
Participants like David Green report a new understanding of mental health and the role students can play in caring for one another.
“Your friends are supposed to be there for you," he says. "A couple of months ago I would have thought if I were having problems it’s not really my job to burden other people with those problems, but if your friends aren’t going to be there for you when you’re having hard times, then they’re not your friends.”
Charlottesville High School counselor Dominique Williams is hopeful this training will continue to bear fruit – during high school and beyond.
“We’ve got the potential to make our schools safer,” he says. “We’ve got the potential to make our colleges safer, and we’ve got the potential to make our workplace safer.”
He, Green and Bullard traveled to Las Vegas last weekend to meet with program organizers and other students who’ve taken part in the pilot program – including two from Freedom High in Northern Virginia. They offered advice as Lady Gaga’s foundation prepares to expand Teen Mental Health First Aid nationwide.