From the time the course was first made available, a common request from
participants was to adapt the program for youth. Teachers, youth workers and other
adults who work with young people liked the program but wanted information tailored
to a younger target group.
The Youth Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) program was launched in April 2007. The
intended audience is adults who work with adolescents. School professionals have
embraced the course, along with juvenile justice workers, youth workers, drug and
alcohol counsellors and many allied health professionals. In the two years since it
began, almost 200 people have been trained to deliver the Youth MHFA program.
Youth MHFA covers the same areas as the mainstream course: depression, suicidal
thoughts and behaviours, anxiety disorders, psychotic disorders and substance use
disorders. Two additional areas are covered: non-suicidal self-injury and eating
disorders. While these problems can affect both adolescents and adults, they tend to
have their onset in adolescence.
In general, the symptoms of mental illnesses are similar for adults and
adolescents. However, the most common symptoms can be somewhat different. For
example, one of the main symptoms of depression in adults is an unusually sad mood
that does not go away, whereas in adolescents, moodiness or irritability may be more
common than sadness. Another example is in the area of substance use disorders. It is
uncommon for adolescents to meet the criteria of substance use disorders because they
often have not been using substances for long enough to have developed a diagnosable
disorder. In the Youth MHFA course, substance use is treated both as a potential
indicator of an underlying mental health problem and as a risk factor for developing
substance use problems (and other mental illnesses) later on.
There is also a focus on the particular challenges for young people who are in
need of help, the barriers to help-seeking, and the paucity of evidence for many
Early intervention for mental disorder is important at any age. For young people
it is even more important. Mental disorders in adolescents interfere with the
important developmental tasks of adolescence, including the development of social
skills and adoption of adult roles, and can prevent young people from completing
Adolescence is a time of rapid change. As a result, the symptoms of mental
disorders can be dismissed as 'just a phase' or as normal adolescent behaviour. We
encourage participants to try to distinguish normal adolescent changes from
potentially serious problems. It helps to consider the tasks of normal adolescence
when determining if there is a problem.
For example, a common symptom of many mental health problems is withdrawing from
friends and family. A normal part of adolescence is withdrawing from family and
spending more time with peers. This means that if a young person is spending less
time with their family, and is not spending more time with peers, there may be a
problem. Unusual behaviour which is transient is probably not a concern, but
persistent behaviour changes may indicate a more serious problem. The course also
encourages participants to trust their instincts. If a young person you know well
appears not to be functioning as well as they were previously, and the behaviour
changes appear to be problematic, there may be a difficulty which could benefit from
If you are interested in becoming a Youth Mental Health First Aid instructor, or
in organising a course in your workplace, please visit the YMHFA website.
Co-ordinator, Youth Mental Health First Aid
Orygen Youth Health Research Centre
University of Melbourne
- For more information contact Youth Mental Health First Aid co-ordinator Claire
Kelly via email.