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Boone: AWARE’s mental health first aid elevates the conversation about adolescent mental illness

By Vicki Prichard
NKyTribune reporter

If the average citizen, trained and informed through community first aid or CPR courses, can save lives, imagine what a mental health first aid course might do.

Boone County Schools have set a program in motion to find out.

Through Boone: AWARE Boone County Schools are training individuals to become cognizant of the signs and symptoms of mental illness – especially among the adolescent population. It’s a mental health first aid for understanding the difference between normal adolescent development and adolescent development in which mental health becomes an issue.

“One in four youth struggle at some point in their life with a mental health concern,” says Dr. Anna Marie Tracy, supervisor for Title 1 Services in Boone County Schools. “Whether that be anxiety, a simple level of anxiety, all the way through to a difficult one — eating problems, suicide ideation.”

Boone: AWARE is a community project developed by the Boone County Schools through a three- year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which is making headway in bringing Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) instruction to the Boone County community.


The aim of the project is to create a culture of literacy around mental health, particularly mental health in youth throughout the Boone County community, including schools, parents, businesses, government agencies and youth themselves.

To date, more than 400 community members have trained through YMHFA. The program offers a free youth mental health first aid training course designed to help identify the distinctions between what’s normal and what warrants further attention.

A critical component of Boone: AWARE is that it gives adults the tools to use language that will encourage children to open up.

“Then it wouldn’t be a stigma to refer somebody to mental health assistance, because if somebody were to say to you, “You really need to seek some help,” that becomes an offensive thing and it shouldn’t be,” says Tracy. “It should be like “Hey, you’ve got a broken arm I need to take you to the hospital,” or “Hey, you’re feeling broken, let’s take you to someone who can help.””

Tracy says the training will bring light into the conversation on mental illness so that it doesn’t remain a subject discussed only behind closed doors.

Tracy says requests for training are coming in throughout the community. After completing a class at Gateway Community and Technical College, she received a call from Thomas More College asking if they would bring the training program to their student teachers.

“The training is free for participants and is a federally recognized, empirically-backed public education and prevention tool that improves knowledge of mental health challenges, increases literacy, and reduces stigma,” says Boone: AWARE project coordinator, Nikki Sofranko.

Sadly, says Tracy, it took national disasters, such as the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were killed, to cause the conversation to happen. After that shooting, she says, the federal government put a series of grants in place that were focused on youth mental health first aid.

It’s also a global concern.

“Youth mental health first aid is a research-based program developed in Australia,” says Tracy. “It’s in 63 countries around the world.”

Tracy says the first grants were available to state education agencies of which Kentucky was one. Pilot programs took place in Fayette, Jefferson, and smaller Kentucky counties. Another series of grants went to local education agencies, one of them through the northern Kentucky co-operative education services and they reached out to school districts.

Next came a series of grants for the community, and that’s what Boone County Schools applied for which makes them the fiscal agent for the community grant.

Mental health literacy

“The basic purpose is to instill literacy around mental health, particularly, literacy around mental health around youth. To that end, we have the grant for three years. It’s about $375,000,” says Tracy.

In the first year, Boone: AWARE has trained 30 instructors. Training involves five days of training under the certified course from the National Council for Behavior Health. By the second year, Tracy says they will train an additional 30 instructors.

To date, instructors have taught the program to the Williamstown School District, Boone County High School staff, student teachers at Thomas More College, and school resource officers. But the intent is to reach far beyond school personnel.

“Our biggest target is parents, and of course this is a much more difficult topic for them,” says Tracy. “Nobody wants to acknowledge that there are children who may struggle. But it’s the target in the next two years that we’re really going after.”

Tracy says they would also like to work with pediatricians, churches, and athletic coaches.

“Coaches may be able to talk to a child in a different way that perhaps their parents or a physician can’t, so that the more people we have with the skill set to say, ‘I understand,’ ‘How do you feel?’ ‘Tell me about this,’ these are the kinds of things we’re looking for,” says Tracy.

Boone: AWARE will host nearly a dozen training opportunities throughout the community in October.

During the first week of November they will train 87 youth who are involved in AP psychology classes, and in February will train 60 students enrolled in advanced health sciences.

And while the program is geographically aimed at Boone County, Tracy says they will train in other areas throughout Northern Kentucky.

“We are certainly willing to go outside of the county because our kids become your kids, and your kids become our kids very easily,” says Tracy.

Individuals interested in the program can contact Nikki Sofranko at nicole.sofranko@boone.kyschools.us or call 859-224-3791.

Upcoming Youth Mental Health First Aid courses will take place:
Sat, October 1 – Childcare Provider Staff, YMCA Burlington, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Tuesday , October 11 & Wednesdays, October 12, – Students, Thomas More, 4 p.m. – 8 p.m.

Wednesday, October 12, & Thursday, October 13 – AP Psych Students, Ryle HS, 7:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.

Tuesday, October 11 & Wednesday, October 18* – OPEN/Lib Staff, BCPL Florence Branch, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Saturday, October 15 & Saturday, October 22* – OPEN, Good Faith Lutheran, 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

*Saturday, October 22 – OPEN, Florence Christian Church, 8:30 a.m .– 4:30 p.m.

*Tuesday, October 25 – OPEN, BCPL, Florence Branch 9 a.m.– 4:30 p.m.

* indicates a course that is OPEN to the community

From Mentalhealthamerica.net

From Mentalhealthamerica.net

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One Comment

  1. Anna Marie Tracy says:

    Thank you Vicki for the article- well done!. You are instrumental in bringing this topic to light. Appreciated!!

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