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PTA Council programs educates adults about mental illness

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More than two dozen East Meadow residents learned how to respond to a child exhibiting signs of a mental health disorder at a workshop at the Leon J. Campo Salisbury Center on Nov. 2.

In the eight-hour session, representatives of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention taught adults how to recognize the signs of anxiety, depression, psychosis, eating disorders, ADHD and substance use.

The East Meadow PTA Council hosted the workshop, called Youth Mental Health First Aid, through its Project ACCESS (for A Community Committed to Educating Students for Success), which organizes educational workshops for parents. “It is through education and information that we can best help our children to be healthy, happy and ultimately successful,” said PTA Council President Veronica Nicastro.

This was the first time the council hosted the workshop, but members have been brainstorming the concept for years. Last July, the state government mandated that mental health be included in elementary school curriculums. And the East Meadow School District included a health teacher in its 2019-20 budget, to give third- and fourth-grade students 10 lessons in mental health. At the beginning of the school year, the district also hired a guidance counselor to work with students in all buildings.

Nicastro de-scribed the workshop as “a fantastic opportunity to supplement the school district’s mental health curriculum with a community-based program.” The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention holds the courses on request for groups like the PTA Council, and in East Meadow, Coordinator Debbie Caputo said, “It was really well-received.” More than 40 people were on a waiting list for last Saturday’s session.

“Most of the people in here are parents who want to learn more about mental health,” Caputo added. “After today, they’ll be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of youth in mental health crisis and the skills to get them help.”

The program was launched in Australia in 2000 as the nonprofit Mental Health First Aid. Seven years later, the U.S. National Council for Behavioral Health adapted it, and the suicide-prevention foundation started running it in schools in 2014, using a federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The course teaches adults to respond to young people with mental health problems by keeping in mind the acronym ALGEE, which stands for “assess for risk of suicide or harm,” “listen nonjudgmentally,” “give reassurance and information,” encourage appropriate professional help” and “encourage self-help and other support strategies.”

Participants were involved in scenarios simulating a child in crisis interacting with a teacher, listened to stories told by survivors of suicide attempts and took a test to certify that they had successfully completed the program.

One scenario allowed them to experience an auditory hallucination, to better understand what it might be like to hear voices, a common symptom of schizophrenia. Two participants spoke to each other while a third rolled up a piece of paper and spoke directly into the ear of one of them.

Asked how they felt during the exercise, one participant said it was “very difficult to focus” with the additional voice in her ear. Another said she found herself trying to analyze the voice’s every phrase.

When a child says he or she hears voices, Caputo said, “It’s important not to say, ‘It’s all in your head.’ To the child, it’s not all in their head. It’s real.” Instead, she noted, it’s important to recognize what the child may be experiencing in order to find the right treatment.

Caputo said that mental health education is a necessary tool for everyone, regardless of background or age, and pointed to the New York City police officers who have died by suicide in 2019.

“As we destigmatize the need for mental health education,” she said, “we destigmatize asking for help.”