Children Now Insider: Addressing California’s Youth Mental Health Crisis

Training school staff to recognize the signs and intervene in a crisis

A Q&A with Lishaun Francis, Associate Director, Health Collaborations

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What is youth mental health first aid?

Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) refers to the training program trademarked by the National Council for Behavioral Health. YMHFA is designed to equip individuals with the knowledge needed to recognize and de-escalate a mental health issue.

Specifically, YMHFA trains individuals to:

  1. Recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness and substance use disorders, including common psychiatric conditions and common substance use disorders, including opioids and alcohol;
  2. Have knowledge of local resources and services to share with students and others who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge;
  3. Safely de-escalate crisis situations involving individuals with a mental illness; and
  4. Reduce stigma and increase help-seeking behavior both in First-Aiders and those they help.


Why do we need it? What are some of the challenges facing kids today?

In California, we are in the midst of a youth mental health crisis. Nearly 1 in 3 high schoolers reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row, so much so that they stopped doing some of their usual activities. Nearly 1 in 5 reported that they have seriously considered attempting suicide, and it is the second leading causing of death among youth ages 15 to 24.1

Many kids who are fighting existing societal inequities face challenges that are difficult to overcome. For example, LGBTQ youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to their heterosexual peers.2 And youth with past exposure to interpersonal violence (as a victim or witness) are at a higher risk for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), major depressive episodes, and substance abuse/dependence.3

Additionally, there’s a lot of pressure facing all kids today. In many ways, this pressure – to fit in, get good grades, be popular – gets amplified by technology like social media. The pervasive use of platforms like Instagram and Twitter, which has been linked to increased rates of depression among teens,4 means that kids are spending less time engaging with their peers face-to-face, and as a result, lacking much-needed emotional and human connection.

This is not to say that being a teenager has ever been easy – we all dealt with those awkward and sometimes painful years. But there are new and unique challenges facing this generation of kids, who deal with the trauma of school shootings from an early age, fear the consequences of natural disasters like fires and floods, and are exposed to a barrage of negative images and stories on a daily basis.


What is Senate Bill 428, and what does it propose?

Introduced by State Senators Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) and Anthony Portantino (D-Pasadena), Senate Bill 428 is a first step that we can take to address the very real mental health issues facing our kids.

This bill would require all CA schools to train 10 percent of their staff, or two staff persons, whichever is greater – including, but not limited to educators – in an evidenced-based, nationally recognized, in-person training program (which can include YMHFA). Staff can enroll in a number of affordable programs run by one of the more than 1,000 YMHFA instructors working across the state.

Of the nearly 40,000 people who are trained in YMHFA in California, a little more than 1,700 educators and school staff have been trained in school settings. To put that in context, there are approximately 6.2 million students enrolled in the CA public school system.


Can this really have an impact?


Training programs have been implemented in several California counties, as well as in more than 20 states across the country. At least 1.5 million Americans have some training, with promising results. However, all California kids need access to these critical services – the mental health crisis affects everyone, regardless of ethnicity, economic status, gender identity – the problem is widespread, and our response must be as well.

Kids and youth are resilient, and have an incredible capacity to heal, but they need our support in order to do so.

During the SB 428 Senate Education Committee hearing last month, Jennifer Bayliss, whose daughter completed suicide at the age of 15, provided the following compelling testimony:

“I blame no one for my daughter’s death, but looking back I recognize that there were opportunities for teachers, coaches and family members in Alliy’s life to intervene and possibly save her. If we had the tools … to help us recognize that she was in crisis, my extremely capable, kind-hearted daughter might have gotten the help that she needed.

The signs of crisis can be hard to see, but they are there, if you know how to look for them. I strongly believe that if training in [a youth mental health first aid program] was as common as training for first aid, CPR or administering an Epipen, then the adults surrounding Ali would have had the skills and tools to know how to intervene.”

What can people do to get involved?

If you are affiliated with an organization and have the authority to do so, please sign on to this letter, coordinated by The Children’s Movement, voicing your support for trainings like YMHFA in schools.

As an individual, you can show your support by:

  • Tweeting about the campaign: 
    Kids in California are facing a mental health crisis. Sign on to support training school staff in #YouthMentalHealthFirstAid #ProKidCA #sb428
  • Calling or emailing your legislator and telling them that it is critical to ensure school staff can be first responders to youth mental health issues by supporting SB 428.

As part of the health team, Lishaun supports Children Now’s mental health/trauma efforts.

Prior to joining Children Now, Lishaun Francis was an Associate Director at the California Medical Association. She provided policy support and analysis for California physicians on the issues of Medi-Cal, Workers’ Compensation, and Health Information Technology. Lishaun spent over two years with the Legislative Analyst Office (LAO where she provided fiscal and policy analyses to the State Legislature on issues of mental health, developmental disabilities, and alcohol and drug programs. In Washington, DC Lishaun Francis worked as a Program Analyst for the U.S Department of Education, providing fiscal support on issues of higher education.

Lishaun Francis received her Master’s of Public Policy from the University of Michigan, and her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Spelman College in Atlanta, GA.

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