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Youth MHFA instructor says adults have “duty of care” to support the mental health of young people

With almost 30 years’ experience working as a registered school guidance counsellor, Karyn Munro has a deep passion for the wellbeing of young people.

But she has concerns about the growing wave of youth experiencing mental health challenges and distress.

“Things have really impacted on our youth, especially in recent years, and I often get asked why,” says Karyn, who has spent much of her career working with teenagers and their whānau in school settings.

More recently, she has been working in wellbeing, suicide prevention, suicide bereavement counselling and as a Youth Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) instructor.

“Anxiety is just massive within our youth population, so that’s our number one challenge. Covid didn’t help. Social media doesn’t help. [There is] anxiety over global issues, peer relationships and stress within families. You can’t just put your finger on one thing, but certainly things have changed for our youth.”

Karyn is one of the two trainers leading the Youth Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Aotearoa New Instructor course in Wellington in May. It is the first time that the five-day programme has been offered in the North Island.

Youth MHFA is an evidence-based education programme that teaches adults how to assist young people (aged 11 to 18 years) who are experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis.

“As adults, we have an absolute duty of care to recognise and offer support,” says Karyn.

“Whenever a mental health challenge or crisis happens, there are services to call. As well as that, what we need is more adults who can identify and do early intervention and offer help and support.”

Mental Health First Aid means that everyday people – including teachers, sports coaches, youth group leaders and parents – have the skills and knowledge to recognise and respond to those experiencing mental health challenges or a crisis.

“As adults, we often don’t notice [the signs] or we keep away because we are scared of saying the wrong thing,” says Karyn. “Youth Mental Health First Aid teaches – and it’s incredibly reassuring – how do we have these conversations. How do we approach and assist someone? Where do we go for information and support? People attending the course have found it incredibly useful.”

Karyn has been instrumental in bringing Youth MHFA to New Zealand.

She first heard about MHFA when attending a conference in Australia in 2017. Listening to Dr Claire Kelly, the Director of Research and Curriculum for MHFA International, speak at the conference was a light-bulb moment.

“I thought, this is common sense, and we really need this [in New Zealand] because in schools what I was finding was that all of the mental health challenges and concerns about students’ wellbeing was coming my way. Whereas, I think that a lot of work can be done by staff and parents if we provide that support, training and reassurance [on what to do].”

Karyn spent 2017 and 2018 researching the MHFA programme, and was impressed that it was a robust, evidence-based programme taught around the world (currently in 29 countries).

“It just made me even more confident that we needed it.”

A few years later, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the opportunity to bring the Youth MHFA programme to New Zealand came along.

Karyn was working for WellSouth Primary Health Network, part of a group of regional agencies that came together in 2020 to establish the Te Hau Toka Southern Lakes Wellbeing Group.

With a focus on youth mental health, funding from Te Hau Toka enabled Te Pou to adapt and develop the Youth MHFA programme for New Zealand.

Adapted by [MHFA Project Lead] Sarah Christensen, and mentored by Dr Claire Kelly, the Youth MHFA Aotearoa programme quickly got up and running in the Southern Lakes region. The first course launched in Te Anau in early September 2023.

Since then, there have been 13 Youth MHFA Aotearoa courses held in the Southern Lakes region – eight in schools and five in the community.

The course content helps people understand the broad spectrum of mental health challenges impacting youth including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, non-suicidal self-injury, suicide, and problematic drug use.

The feedback from new Youth Mental Health First Aiders has been positive, says Karyn.

“A Year 7 teacher said to me [after training], ‘I understand so much more about anxiety and how to approach conversations with parents now’.”

Karyn says if a young person is feeling anxious, the default shouldn’t always be to send them to counselling straight away.

“There are a number of steps that we can do in that early intervention stage from people who are Mental Health First Aiders.”

Along with school teachers and guidance counsellors, parents and community members are encouraged to become Youth Mental Health First Aiders.

“And a number of parents have – because in my experience a youth will often talk to a friend’s parent if there is a good relationship,” says Karyn. “Sports coaches, youth workers – there are so many people out there who would benefit from doing the training.”

Mental Health First Aid is for anyone, and everyone.

“Our desire is to see all adults who work with youth, live with youth, and teach youth do this course, because it’s that beneficial.”

Upskill in or refer a friend to the five-day Youth MHFA New Instructor training in Wellington (20 to 24 May 2024).

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