Wetumpka High School will participate in a national teen Mental Health First Aid pilot program after the National Council for Behavioral Health and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation selected it as one of 35 other schools nationwide to participate in the program.

The five-step teen program consists of in-person training designed for high school students to learn about mental illnesses and addictions and how to identify and respond to a developing mental health or substance use problem among their peers.

Rashawn Blassingame serves as the special education supervisor and mental health lead for Elmore County Schools and was responsible for gathering and submitting details to qualify for the program.

After two tragic incidents involving students, officials with the school system realized there was a void they could fill.

“(Superintendent) Mr. (Richard) Dennis came to me and said we need to focus on mental health,” Blassingame said. “My uncle is big into mental health in Washington D.C. so I picked up the phone and called him. He pointed me to the Mental Health First Aid program.

“It is like CPR. It does not make me a therapist, but it does let me know what direction I need to lead individuals.”

After taking several levels of courses, Blassingame is now a trainer. She has already delivered training to the county’s school nurses and counselors.

“I eventually want to train the bus drivers,” she said. “The drivers are the first people the kids see. First thing in the morning they see the bus drive; last thing before they get off the bus they see the bus driver. If something is going on, it could be the bus driver who is the first person the kids see. That’s going to be my next big project.”

Because the program emphasizes getting help from a trusted adult, Blassingame will deliver Youth Mental Health First Aid program training to staff and students at the high school. Teachers and students at the other three Elmore County high schools will receive the training after it is released at Wetumpka High School.

The program was created by health education nurse Betty Kitchener and mental health literacy professor Anthony Jorm based in Australia. Their program was adapted by The National Council with support from Born This Way Foundation and Well Being Trust.

“With teen Mental Health First Aid, we like to say, it’s OK to not be PL,” Born This Way Foundation co-founder Lady Gaga said in a release. “Sometimes when life gives you a million reasons to not want to stay, you need just one person that looks at you, listens to you, helps you get help and validates how you feel. I want the teen Mental Health First Aid program in every school in this country.”

Although the teen mental health program is geared toward high school students, the school system also addresses mental health at the junior high level through speaking engagements by individuals such as Sandi Cox, who lost her 13-year-old daughter Peyton, and events like The Power Team, a faith-based motivational speaking group that perform feats of strength.

The county school system also has direct access to two mental health therapists.

According to National Council for Behavioral Health, half of all mental illnesses begin by age 14 and three-quarters by the mid-20s. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds.

Wetumpka was the only high school in Alabama chosen to participate in this program.

As of September, two million Americans have taken Mental Health First Aid training. For more information, visit www.MentalHealthFirstAid.org or contact Blassingame at 334-567-1224.