The Princeton School District will be leading the way in how communities deal with student mental health issues.

The school district is teaming with M Health Fairview and The Heart and Mind Connection to bring a mental health first aid program to the school district’s 10th graders during the 2021-22 school year. The program will be expanded to other grades within the high school in future years.

“The pilot program will be the first mental health first aid program in Minnesota,” said Princeton Superintendent Ben Barton.

Barton says the program could put Princeton on the map- within the state and nationally- as a leader in addressing mental health issues.

Mental Health First Aid is an evidence-based community education course that introduces participants to the risk factors and warning signs of common mental illnesses and substance use disorders, according to M Health Fairview.

Princeton 10th graders will be trained on how to recognize mental health warning signs, start honest conversations with friends and direct peers to resources.

The training is likely to take place in conjunction with the high school’s health classes, Barton said. The Mental Health First Aid course consists of six one-hour trainings that will take place over a six-week period, he said.

All high school staff and faculty will complete the seven-and-a-half-hour youth Mental Health First Aid training, designed for adults working with ages 12 to 18.

“We will have 100 percent of our staff certified in Mental Health First Aid,” Barton said. Some middle school staff members will also participate in the training. Like the student program, staff training is being funded through grant dollars from M Health Fairview.

M Health Fairview reached out to Princeton Public Schools and The Heart and Mind Connection to initiate the program.

“We have always been concerned about mental health at the school level, and that only grew during the pandemic,” Barton said.

“When M Health Fairview approached us regarding the program, I didn’t have to think too hard about our participation,” he said.

Barton also had M Health officials meet with high school administrators, counselors, and school social workers.

“They all got behind the program with their support,” Barton said.

Baron says the program will add an important piece to how the school district meets the needs of its students.

“I don’t know if schools in the past were focused on mental health,” Barton said. “In the past, the goal has always been academics.”

But schools need to acknowledge that mental health is an important aspect of a student’s upbring.

And as the nation cries out for ways to address mental health issues in its communities, Princeton Schools, M Health Fairview and The Heart and Mind Connection have a way to begin addressing those issues.

“Being a teen can be hard enough without the added stresses of a pandemic. It’s so important to provide teens with the skills to identify when they or their peers may be facing a mental health or substance use challenge,” said Jessica Cici, MD, a psychiatrist with M Health Fairview. “Teens will often go to their peers before an adult, so giving kids the tools they need to seek the appropriate resources for help is invaluable.”

And that’s why the three organizations will begin teaching Mental Health First Aid. The program is much like the way students are taught traditional first aid, Barton said.

Like CPR, Mental Health First Aid prepares participants to support someone experiencing a mental health problem and connect them with appropriate professional help. The youth and teen curriculum are specifically designed for each group and focus on their unique experiences and needs.

Barton, for one, is glad to see a door has been opened to train students and have them help in identifying their fellow students who may need some mental health first aid.

“Our hope is that the program will grow so all students will be certified in mental health first aid,” Barton said.

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