The last few weeks have given us all a powerful reminder about the importance of prioritizing our mental health and speaking out when we need help. By publicly acknowledging they need space to focus on mental health, Olympic athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have sent a message across the world encouraging others to feel empowered to do the same.

I hope young people, many of whom look up to these athletes as role models, recognize that it’s OK for them to say they are not OK either. But for many young people, mental health remains extremely stigmatized, even at a time when more youth are in need of support and services than ever before. To help combat the hesitancy young people face in reaching out for help, we need the trusted adults in their lives, such as parents and teachers, to be trained to recognize signs and symptoms of someone struggling with mental health.

At NAMI Metro Suburban, where we serve individuals, families, and communities affected by mental illness in the western suburbs of Cook County, we believe that training teachers on mental health and providing them with the resources to connect their students with the help they need is one of the most important ways to address the mental health needs of our young people. 

This training is even more important as we look to the start of a new school year, where many children are returning to the classroom for the first time in a year and a half and are preparing to face the challenges that come with catching up on missed learning, returning to after-school activities, and resuming daily socialization with friends. 

That’s why we are firm believers in Mental Health First Aid, an international, evidence-based education program to train people in mental health just like someone would be trained in CPR, as a way to get teachers the training and resources they need. A range of peer-reviewed studies conducted around the world show that individuals who participate in Mental Health First Aid not only grow their knowledge of mental illnesses and addictions and increase their confidence in, and likelihood of, helping an individual in distress, but also show an increase in their own mental wellness. This is particularly important at this moment, as teachers will also be facing the challenges of returning to the classroom after a long, difficult period and need to be attentive to their mental health as well.

The State of Illinois recognizes Mental Health First Aid’s effectiveness, too, as Governor JB Pritzker signed legislation back in 2019 authorizing Illinois school districts to utilize the training program. Now we just need to encourage schools to implement that program, and ensure our teachers get the resources they need to address the mental health of their students and their own. 

NAMI Metro Suburban wants to help — we offer free Mental Health First Aid classes that count as eight continuing education units to anyone interested.

As students return to classrooms, our teachers will be back on the frontlines of our youth mental health crisis, each and every day. We need to be sure they’re equipped with the resources to handle it and connect students with the help they need. Let’s get more teachers connected to Mental Health First Aid and ensure mental wellness is a priority in our schools.

Kimberly Knake is executive director of NAMI Metro Suburban.

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