NJ School Superintendents Engage Community Partners to Support Youth through Mental Health First Aid

Recognizing that young people facing emotional stress need more help addressing their behavioral health needs, New Jersey Health Initiatives (NJHI) funded three school districts to develop a network of school personnel qualified to spot and deal with potential problems.

In the Freehold Borough, Lower Cape May, and Maple Shade school districts, school superintendents are partnering with the Mental Health Association in New Jersey, Inc. (MHANJ), teachers, other school staff, and community members to certify these  instructors and deliver Mental Health First Aid-Youth (MHFA-Youth) trainings across Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Monmouth, and Salem counties.

The three teams are collectively working to train 600 school district and regional community members to identify risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems in youth, understand the importance of early intervention, and develop the skills to assist an adolescent experiencing a crisis.

Their work can benefit youth by reducing the stigma of mental illness and addressing their health needs through increased mental health literacy and increasing the availability of care.

The project directors sat down with NJHI to share an update on their work as they begin the second year of their two-year awards.

Here is what Beth Norcia, Maple Shade School District Superintendent; Rocco Tomazic, Borough of Freehold Public Schools Superintendent; Joell Worster, Lower Cape May Regional School District Director of Special Education and Support Services; and Ruth Kaluski, Mental Health Association in New Jersey, Inc. Director of Career Connection Employment Resource Institute, had to say.

NJHI: Individual community members have joined school personnel from your districts to form teams of certified MHFA-Youth trainers. How have your school districts identified community partners to build the team and who do the five members represent?

Joell, Cape May: We identified our partners through other community projects, such as the Cape Regional Wellness Alliance, the County Office of Education, local police and community organizations. Joining me as certified MHFA-Youth trainers are a school psychologist and a licensed social worker, both with the Lower Cape May Regional School District, the school nurse for Middle Township Public Schools, and a Middle Township Police officer. I arrange the MHFA-Youth trainings and then we pair up to deliver them. We provided six trainings in the first year.

Beth, Maple Shade: We have also engaged our law enforcement partners in this work. One of our certified instructors is a youth pastor who also serves as a police chaplain. Her ability to connect with people and lift up others is amazing to see. She works with students in her youth group through her parish, in addition to youth who have had encounters with law enforcement. From her diverse experiences, she brings a wealth of knowledge and a true understanding of the needs of our community. Her fellow trainers include a school nurse, a school counselor and a school social worker. Two of these colleagues are originally from Maple Shade, and as a result, have relationships with generations of families.

Rocco, Freehold: Four of our trainers are Freehold Borough Public Schools employees. The fifth trainer is also a certified health educator with the Freehold Department of Health. We identified the Freehold Department of Health as a community partner through networks we had already developed unrelated to mental health. In addition, our school district partnered with Casa Freehold to present two of our eight community trainings in Spanish — one at Casa Freehold, and the other at a local Spanish-speaking church.

NJHI: Rocco, please tell us more about the trainings presented in Spanish. How does the Freehold MHFA-Youth team identify opportunities to engage and train specific communities within Freehold Borough?

Rocco, Freehold: Because our Spanish-speaking trainer has deep connections within the Freehold Borough Spanish-speaking community, it was not difficult to reach out to groups to organize a training.

Ruth, Mental Health Association in New Jersey Inc.: The districts’ partnership with us to introduce MHFA-Youth trainings is a highlight of our work. I thank the administrators for their work to identify applicants who were committed to acquiring their MHFA-Youth certification. Every applicant the superintendents nominated for our consideration completed the three-day MHFA-Youth trainer certification course.

In addition to providing technical assistance to screen applicants and facilitate a Train the Trainer event in coordination with the National Council for Behavioral Health, we supported the Freehold trainers in bringing Spanish-language MHFA-Youth trainings to their community.

NJHI: What have been key lessons in your respective work to build capacity at the county or regional level?

Joell, Cape May: There has been an overwhelming request for MHFA-Youth trainings in Cape May County. Word-of-mouth has been key to getting information out about available MHFA-Youth trainings to our community partners. We have trained more than 75 people in MHFA-Youth to date. School personnel, both certified and non-certified, police officers, community members, community volunteers, mental health workers, and agency directors and supervisors have participated in the trainings. As a result of this initiative, more individuals in Cape May County are aware of the mental health challenges facing our youth and have the tools to be able to support them. We have also been able to reach a cross-section of individuals. In the coming year, we will focus on providing trainings and increasing awareness of the mental health needs of adolescents in Burlington, Camden, Cumberland, and Salem counties.

In the coming year, we will focus on providing trainings and increasing awareness of the mental health needs of adolescents in Burlington, Camden, Cumberland, and Salem counties.

Rocco, Freehold: For us, a key lesson has been identifying times to both deliver the trainings and to bring in participants. The training is not a casual information session, so it is important both the instructors and the learners demonstrate a certain level of commitment to this work.

Beth, Maple Shade: We ask all of the MHFA-Youth training participants for their input. They have shared valuable feedback about how the Assess, Listen, Give, Encourage, Encourage (ALGEE) method can be applied, and which community groups we should reach out to and offer the training.

Our first set of trainings focused on educational assistants, school nurses from various districts, and district staff. Creating a common language and empowering school staff to intervene in a crisis has been a driver for delivering a training to all of our high school and middle school staff for the upcoming school year. We’re also delivering trainings to our police department.

NJHI: How are your school districts incorporating policy- and systems-change approaches to increase awareness of mental health and substance use issues among adolescents?

Rocco, Freehold: We’re seeking to build our wider network of health care for Freehold students, and this work is one phase of a larger effort by our district. At the community level, our district is supporting the new Federally Qualified Health Center, employing an advance practice nurse and partnering in a community coalition. Our partnership with Neighborhood Connections to Health led to a district initiative to test students for lead. In addition, we are working with other New Jersey school districts to establish a network focused on suicide prevention.

Joell, Cape May: Our school district is considering adopting a policy that would require all new certified employees to participate in a MHFA-Youth training.

NJHI: Are there specific stories from your communities that give voice to your vision for this work?

Our trainers have shared that they appreciate the opportunity to learn from this work as much as the participants do. Everyone listens to each other and thinks about presented situations as parents, neighbors and educators.

Beth, Maple Shade: Our trainers have shared that they appreciate the opportunity to learn from this work as much as the participants do. They are facilitating conversations that can be difficult. Everyone listens to each other and thinks about presented situations as parents, neighbors and educators, which is profound.

NJHI: What closing thoughts would you like to share?

Ruth, Mental Health Association in New Jersey, Inc.: To sustain this work, MHANJ’s goal is to embed the training in these communities. One approach we have implemented is to incorporate this work in our partnership with the New Jersey Hospital Association (NJHA). Through NJHA, we are able to offer School Nursing Continuing Education Units (CEUs) for a limited number of trainings across all of our initiatives. We’ve selected some of the NJHI-supported trainings to be eligible for eight CEUs, and in Maple Shade and Freehold Borough, many participants have qualified to attend the MHFA-Youth training for these credits.

Joell, Cape May: Participants who work in mental health felt the training was a good refresher and said the resources provided will be a great help. Our county supervisor of the said the training was excellent. At two MHFA-Youth trainings for school district employees, support staff said they were pleased to be invited to participate and receive this information, because they are often the first adult a student encounters.

Rocco, Freehold: We have seen an increase in the number of students who have emigrated from Central America. In many cases, these students do not have access to health care. This work, and our partnership in various community-level initiatives, has largely mitigated that factor and ensured students have the services to stay healthy and engage in their education.

Learn more about this work here, and connect with the grantees to follow their progress.

  • Click here to contact Beth Norcia, Maple Shade School District Superintendent
  • Click here to contact Rocco Tomazic, Borough of Freehold Public Schools Superintendent
  • Click here to contact Joell Worster, Lower Cape May Regional School District Director of Special Education and Support Services
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