Within the Scouting program, we have all heard about the First Aid merit badge, First Aid CPR classes, and First Aid competitive meets. Our kids learn about it beginning at a young age and then as they grow they are exposed to opportunities to practice it. Some of them like it so much they become our future first responders, paramedics and medical personnel. However, first aid can move beyond bandages and breathing techniques, especially in the area of mental health.
Administering mental health first aid is not new. There are thousands of mental health care professionals throughout the world. Individuals and families may rely on them to help when there is a need. However, in our Scouting life there may be times when Scout leaders must deal with Scouts who seem on the edge, anxious, melting down, raging, despondent, withdrawn, or just plain sad. What do we do to help them through a meeting, an event, or an activity when they seem so far away from us? Band aids may not be the answer. Here are some steps we can take to help ease these Scouts through all such meetings, events, and activities:
Awareness – Knowing your Scouts is critical when it comes to special needs, especially in the area of mental health. Have conversations with both the parents and the Scout when all is calm. Research different strategies and cueing techniques that can be used during times of crisis, so that they can be applied before an issue occurs. Familiarize yourself with the Scout’s tendencies, likes and dislikes. On-going conferences are a big help and will keep you up to date.
Prevention – Be alert to precursors to agitation: outbursts, running away, meltdowns, defiance and other unwanted events. Sometimes a Scout who has issues may exhibit excess movements, tics, verbal outbursts, extreme pacing, rapid eye movements and so on before an episode. Consider that, like the rumblings of an earthquake or a volcano before eruption, there are signs in youth that signal distress as well. Learn them!
Be Interactive – Interact with all of your Scouts. Be encouraging and positive throughout the activity or event. It is critical for the leadership – including youth leaders – to be active and involved as much as possible in all facets of any meeting, event, or activity. Keep an eye out for possible disruption, especially with Scouts who have a tendency to overreact.
Listen – Always listen non-judgmentally. You may become that trusted adult to whom a Scout will eventually disclose information. Be encouraging and understanding. When suspected abuse is relayed to you, follow youth protection policies by reporting any suspicion of child abuse, regardless of the Scout’s pleas to keep it a secret. Keep calm and use a soothing voice. Watch your own body language and remain non-threatening. Ease the Scout through the issue and then notify authorities, if warranted.
Utilize Action Plans – Most Scouts grow and mature. Most learn to handle their feelings and emotions eventually. A Scout with disabilities, with the help of professionals in mental health care, usually learns techniques and strategies to help work through uncomfortable mental health episodes. Encourage the Scout and parents to share these action plans with you. Using key phrases or visual cues from the leadership, the Scout should be able to self-regulate with a bit of encouragement and reminding. Because of your efforts, the Scout will feel safe utilizing these strategies.
Get educated – there are courses in your area similar to CPR classes that deal with mental health and youth. Visit www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org for more information.