The Ketchikan High School Rotary Interact club, on April 30, hosted a Youth Mental Health First Aid class for its members, as well as the general student body, with 30 Kayhi students in attendance.

The class also was held for the general public in January, and there have been adult Mental Health First Aid classes held in Ketchikan, as well, sponsored by the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition’s volunteer Ketchikan Behavioral Task Force.

The classes were funded by a grant from the State of Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, according to KWC Program Director Romanda Simpson.

Kayhi students used a school day to attend the eight-hour workshop, with a “working lunch,” Rotary Interact president Emma Campbell said in a May 6 interview in the Kayhi library, alongside three of her fellow attendees.

The classes are set up like cardiopulmonary resuscitation classes, where the students receive a three-year certificate upon completion.

The Mental Health First Aid classes focus on teaching a five-step intervention plan called “ALGEE.” According to information at the website, the steps are: assess for the risk of harm, listen non-judgmentally, give reassurance and information, encourage appropriate professional help, and encourage self-help and other support strategies.

Kayhi senior Alex Trugon shared his reasons for attending the April workshop.

“I took the class because I plan to get a doctorate in psychology and trying to specialize in PTSD,” he said. “Mainly, because I’m going into the military for a career, and I’m going to have that as a post-career, trying to help reduce the suicide rate for veterans, and this was kind of a good way to get started.”

Trugon described the class as “amazing, in my opinion, as far as for anyone who is even moderately interested in psychology. It’s a class I would have recommended to anyone to take.”

He explained that he already had basic knowledge of psychology, “but this kind of gave me more fundamentals of it, and a better idea of where to set up and lay out a foundation of what I wanted to do.”

He did find some of the facts presented in the workshop to be new, such as “some of the statistics that we talked about, with some of the disorders and especially with psychosis.”

He said it was interesting to learn that about one-third of people with a psychosis disorder would have only one event in their lifetime, about one-third would have a few sporadic episodes and the last third would experience chronic episodes.

Trugon said he would tell someone unsure of whether they should invest the time in a workshop to be sure not to miss out on a “big opportunity to learn how to communicate with people who are suffering through issues.”

Senior RJ Danao, a Rotary Interact member, said he also gleaned important information from the workshop.

“It was a great time to have that mental aid training,” he said.

He explained that senior year has been a strain for him, as “everything’s ending. It’s just crazy.”

He said that attending the intensive class was an powerful experience for him.

“It was a long day, and it was kind of tiring,” he said.

One exercise, in particular, strongly affected him.

Students were instructed to converse with another person. During the conversation, another participant whispered thoughts into their ears through paper cones, to simulate the subconscious voices that some mentally ill people struggle with.

“That was really creepy to me,” Danao said. “It just freaked me out the whole entire time. I was like, ‘Oh my God, what if this actually happens to me. That would be an awful situation.”

Senior Franklyn Correa, also a Rotary Interact member, said he attended the January workshop, held at the downtown Ketchikan Fire Department.

“For me, especially the way it most impacted me, and how surprising it was to me, is how soon I had to use those skills,” he said.

The day after the workshop, he said someone he knew began exhibiting the very danger signs he’d learned to spot in the class.

He said he was grateful that the class helped him to learn to take such signs more seriously.

“I felt like I had the tools,” to help get the person back on track, he said.

He explained the nature of the help he’d learned to offer.

“Not necessarily solving the problem right away,” he said, but “at least they know to be more patient, and see where things are headed. To be a little more confident things are looking a little brighter than it was yesterday.”

Correa added that not only did the class help him to recognize warning signs, but to “communicate in a way that shows you care.”

More critically, he said they were taught what attentive listening means for quality communication: to use proper eye contact and body posture, for instance.

“The little things you don’t necessarily think about,” Correa said, “but the way one acts matters a lot when it comes to these type of situations.”

Campbell added, that people now, especially, need to get back in touch with their ability to resist distraction from electronic devices.

“A huge wake-up call to some people, to really go, ‘Wow, I’ve really been secluded on my phone,” Campbell said. “Look at how much more I could learn.”

Correa said that the skills he learned in the January workshop were very valuable and lasting.

“It was definitely worth it for me,” he said.

Campbell took the January class in addition to the April class.

“It was actually pretty cool, doing it twice,” she said.

She explained that the workshop offered so much information, that the refresher was valuable. The comprehensive reference book supplied with the class has been helpful to refer to over time as well, Campbell said.

She said she has used the skills she gained in the workshops to reach out to people she saw posting on social media, exhibiting the warning signs she’d learned to detect.

“I’ve seen things on there that were kind of dark and scary,” she said.

An important detail she learned, also, is to take people’s words seriously, and to not write them off as only a plea for attention, for instance.

“We don’t want to diagnose people,” she said, “even though we learn different types of mental disorders that could be happening with the person. We really focus on just trying to let them know that they are loved, we care about them, we want them to stay here, we don’t want them to harm themselves, or anything like that. To really make sure that they know that they’re supposed to be here.”

Another aspect of the workshop that Campbell said was valuable, was to address the social stigma attached to mental health issues. She said one exercise they worked through was to write out the alphabet, then think of a word beginning with each letter that was a stereotype of someone with a mental health problem.

“It really helps to get that stigma away,” she said.

One of the big challenges in mental health, she said she learned is that, for doctors and people trying to help people with mental illness, there aren’t plain, physical symptoms that can be diagnosed with a machine or by visual assessment.

Campbell said she definitely sees a need for more workshops offered at Kayhi.

“I think it would be amazing, and we’d definitely see big benefits here,” she said.

She added that she thinks the Kayhi Class Act members, who mentor freshman, would be perfect candidates for the class, as they support new students through the stressful transition to high school.

Campbell summed up the core of what she and the other students learned in the workshop.

“Just letting people know that they’re cared for, we want them here,” she said. “To let them know that we care how they’re feeling.”

She added that having those conversations with people is critical to supporting them.

“It’s good to have those skills and have it in the back of your head — to know to ask those questions to people, to check in and see how they’re doing.”