January 2020 -- Tevet-Shevat 5780,  Volume 26, Issue 1

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Youth Mental Health Challenges Cannot Be Ignored

By Paula Santa-Donato, LCSW, Director of Youth Services at WJCS


Whether we are parents, teachers, sports coaches, or work in youth-serving or community organizations, all of us need to be concerned about the alarmingly high rates of mental health challenges experienced by our youth. One in five American children ages three through 17  have anxiety, depression, eating disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or another mental health or behavioral disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Eighty percent of these children do not receive treatment.  Statistics about the number of children dying by suicide are tragic, frightening, and skyrocketing. The suicide rate for children between the ages of 10 and 14 tripled between 2007 and 2017.


Youth Mental Health First Aid® (YMHFA) is a powerful and impactful initiative that was developed in order to address these serious mental health challenges. It is an 8-hour, nationally recognized, evidence-based course geared for adults who work with and are connected to youth, including teachers, school and camp staff, coaches, youth group leaders, parents, and first responders. The training teaches participants to recognize the warning signs of mental health problems and substance use disorders in adolescents. It provides them with guidance about how to listen non-judgmentally, give reassurance and information, and encourage finding appropriate professional help. It also offers guidance about self-help techniques and mental health support services.

As a certified YMHFA trainer at WJCS-Westchester Jewish Community Services, I am passionate about offering this training. It is an effective tool that can increase awareness regarding mental health challenges that our youth face, reduce the stigmatization of mental health in our communities, and enable individuals who are connected to youth to help and support them.


Since 2013, WJCS, one of the largest human service agencies in Westchester County, has trained nearly 1,700 participants in Youth Mental Health First Aid®. School personnel, first responders, youth group leaders, coaches, and parents have been among our participants and have had an overwhelmingly positive response to the training.  I have personally witnessed how transformative it can be for participants as they engage in role playing, interactive activities, open conversation, and become empowered to help youth in crisis. Just as we all need to keep a first aid kit at home, those of us working and living with children need to be armed with knowledge about mental health and strategies for handling signs of mental health challenges in youth. Let’s end the stigma and the skyrocketing numbers of mental health tragedies among youth. We have the tools to do it.


To learn about arranging a WJCS Youth Mental Health First Aid® training, call Paula Santa-Donato, LCSW, Director of Youth Services at WJCS at (914) 761-0600, ext. 2322 or write her at psantadonato@wjcs.com.