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Agency offers mental health first aid training

Date: 10/31/2014

AGAWAM – Before the crowded room at the Agawam City Council meeting on Oct. 20 heard the news that The Plex proposal had been withdrawn, Sarah Savoia of Feeding Hills stood in front of the council to bring attention to Youth Mental Health First Aid courses.

In doing so, Savoia, a Youth Mental Health First Aid instructor, took one step in an ever up-hill battle to raise awareness about mental health.

Youth Mental Health First Aid is an eight-hour course conducted by the Behavioral Health Network designed to train people to see the warning signs of common mental illnesses in kids and teenagers. The course covers what typical adolescent behavior should be so that atypical behavior can be identified, the most frequently confronted illnesses and an action plan to implement when faced with an issue.

The idea, according to the Meg Mastriana, the senior program manager at the Behavioral Health Network, is to equip people the same way a medical first aid course would.

“It’s giving a non-clinical person some skills, like giving a non-medical person the skills to keep somebody alive during CPR, just to give them an idea of things they should look out for,” Mariana said.   

After each training session, Savoia sends out an evaluation, which includes questions asking whether or not those who have taken the course have implemented what they had learned. Savoia said that, based on survey results, more than 70 youths have been helped in the area.

Though first aid training certification is commonplace, both Savoia and Mastriana said people do not realize how frequently mental illnesses occur, making the Mental Health First Aid program just as nece­­ssary.

“Many people in the public will be encountering people with a mental illness. [They are] more common than heart disease and cancer combined,” Savoia said. “I feel like a lot of people don’t have those skills how to provide that initial help or just to reach out and talk and listen to them non-judgmentally. By giving them some simple skills, maybe we can help mitigate the youth mental health problem.” 

The program has been designed for people without a clinical background, and those who work with children and teenagers are encouraged become certified, although all are welcome.

In September, the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District received a two-year Project AWARE grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This will allow Youth Mental Health First Aid training for more than 250 school personnel and parents.

While this is a step in the right direction, Savoia and Mastriana hope to have more training sessions with schools and after school programs. Savoia has already done sessions at Springfield, West Springfield and Chicopee Boys and Girls Clubs, the Scantic Valley YMCA and Bay Path University. Though they have already conducted training at one local college, Mastriana and Savoia hope to reach more.

“It’s kids that age when traditionally you see the mental health issues coming out, so training some of their RAs, teachers, it’s really appropriate for the schools,” Mastriana said.

The Behavioral Health Network also offers a Mental Health First Aid Course focusing on adults and another for law enforcement agents.

To learn more or to sign up a session, contact Mastriana by calling 301-9352 or by email at