Psychologist unpacks how new training programmes prioritise youth mental health

Published Jun 25, 2024


In recent years, the spotlight on mental health has intensified, leading to significant strides in improving mental wellbeing.

Researchers and health professionals argue that just like physical ailments, mental health issues require timely and effective first aid.

One of the most promising developments is the widespread adoption of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training programmes. These courses are designed to teach individuals how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders.

Comparable to physical first aid, MHFA equips people with the skills to provide initial support and guide someone towards professional help.

A UNICEF survey from 2023 shows a troubling trend among South Africa's youth. About 60% of children and young people felt they needed mental health support last year. This number jumps to 70% for those aged 15 to 24.

Common mental health issues facing these young people include anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide, and self-harm.

There is also a significant stigma around mental health in many families, schools, and communities, causing fear of judgement from parents, teachers, and friends. This stigma often prevents teens from talking about their struggles.

According to Inge Nieuwoudt, an educational psychologist, there’s significant evidence that adult mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, can be traced to symptoms that appeared in adolescence or even childhood.

“As we deal with an escalating youth mental health crisis, we need better ways to recognise and address challenges early in life to prevent these becoming lifelong struggles and to improve overall well-being."

Efforts to understand and support the mental health of South Africa's youth are vital. Addressing these issues early can help improve the overall well-being of future generations.

If the person is reluctant to confide in you, you can encourage them to talk to someone they trust. l DANIEL RECHE/PEXELS

“The concept of youth mental health first aid has emerged to help build the skills of parents, teachers, community mental health and youth workers so that they become more adept at identifying early signs, providing stabilising comfort and helping young people access the professional support that they need,” said Nieuwoudt.

Nieuwoudt will host the SACAP Global Youth Mental Health First Aid Workshop on Tuesday, June 25, from 6pm to 7.30pm.

This online training is mainly for psychologists, registered counsellors, and other mental health professionals. However, teachers and youth care workers will also find it useful.

The workshop is certified and those who complete it will earn 3 CPD points if they are registered with the HPCSA. Participants can join the live session with Inge or watch a recording later, along with online reading and assessments.

How does Mental Health First Aid work?

Mental Health First Aid equips you with skills and a plan called ALGEE to help someone in emotional distress, just like you would offer first aid for a physical injury.

Millions of people around the world have learned the ALGEE action plan. This plan includes five steps that can be used in any order to provide support.

A – Approach, assess for risk of suicide or harm. This involves starting a private and confidential conversation. If the person is reluctant to confide in you, you can encourage them to talk to someone they trust.

L – Listen non-judgmentally. This is important for everyone, but particularly teens who may distrust being vulnerable with adults. It involves listening without interrupting, authentically feeling empathy for their situation and being accepting of their reality even if you don’t agree with what they are saying.

G – Give reassurance and information. Once a person has shared their experiences and emotions with you, you need to be equipped to share useful facts that will inspire hope.

E – Encourage appropriate professional help. Like traditional first aiders, you provide frontline support with the goal of assessing the situation and providing stabilisation. After that, you need to hand over and encouragingly point them in the direction of mental healthcare providers trained to provide acute and long-term interventions.

The earlier someone gets help, the better their chances of recovery and therefore it is vital that you help them learn more about the options available to them.

E – Encourage self-help and other support strategies. This includes helping the person come up with a personalised emotional and physical self-care plan and identifying their supporters in life.

The SACAP Global Youth Mental Health First Aid CPD Workshop will teach attendees about the ALGEE Model, focusing on the first step: approaching a conversation and assessing risk.

Participants will learn details about suicide and self-harm, including common myths, realities and Crisis First Aid for these behaviours.

South Africa faces a major shortage of mental health skills. SACAP Global aims to address this urgent need in schools and communities through this workshop.

Karolyne Williams, the head of strategic innovation at SACAP Global, added: “We have well over half of South African children and youth reporting that they need mental health care, and this highlights how critical it is for a deeper and wider understanding of the challenges they are facing.

“It’s also essential to build skills in those interacting with the youth.”

Williams added: “With mental health first aid training, they will know how to effectively and confidently provide immediate care and how to guide teens to further support without delay.

“By adding this CPD workshop to our SACAP Global offering, we aim to add a layer of robustness at the frontlines of the South African mental healthcare system.”