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Tanager Place holds Youth Mental Health First Aid class

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KWWL) -- To live, laugh and love are the hallmarks of a healthy life. Anything that interferes with those three things at home, at school or in social interactions can be a sign of mental health distress for young people.

Youth Mental Health First Aid is a national class to teach anyone who works with 8 year-olds to 18 year-olds how to be expert observers to spot kids in mental health crisis.

Instructors at Tanager Place are helping them notice the difference between typical behavior and symptoms of mental health crisis.

Oversensitivity to comments and criticism and having low self-esteem are examples of typical adolescent behavior but it crosses the line into signs of crisis when a youth is having uncontrollable crying spells for no apparent reason.

In providing youth mental health first aid, the first step is to assess the child's situation and determine if the child is in danger.

Jacobs and Ashley Deason were today's instructors.

"Anxiety or panic attacks look like heart attacks," Jacobs said, "Again, you're assessing for suicide or harm in that situation to make sure everybody is safe before applying the skills that you learn in this class."

That includes calling 911 if the child or youth is at risk for suicide or self-harm. Many first responders are also trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid. Jacobs says those administering mental health first aid need to stay with the child until the paramedics arrive.

Listening without judging the child, providing reassurance and encouraging support are the next steps in mental health first aid.

That support may come from self-care -- such as doing something the child loves -- or from a professional.

Young people are in the critical stages of growth without the pandemic adding social isolation, changes in schooling and more screen time to their lives -- all of which take an enormous toll on young people.

"A lot of electronic stuff -- which certainly exacerbates mental health challenges, especially when working with kiddos and youth that struggle with ADHD," Deason said.

Jacobs and Deason are also behavior health caseworkers at Tanager Place. They both say they have seen an increase in calls and cases since COVID-19 began.

"I think it's a lot of increased anxiety," Deason said, "Social interactions have certainly decreased so that causes a little bit more anxiety for kids as well. And then also, how they manage different emotions. They're having to experience a lot of different things and not really having that assistance from teachers in the school, as well as behavioral workers, therapists being able to provide that service in person."

It's one more reason parents play a critical role in helping identify and rescue children in crisis.

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Michele White

Cedar Rapids Multimedia Journalist

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