Who are they? How can they help?
Reprinted from "First Responders for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3 (2), pp. 4-5
I feel honoured to be the guest editor of this edition of Visions, having been a “first responder” many times. This may seem funny to some, as the term “first responder” usually refers to emergency response workers such as police or firefighters. I have never been either. However, as a teacher, a mother, a trusted aunt and a friend who tries to be there to support and listen, I have often been the initial contact for people having worries about themselves or their child.
The expression “It takes a village to raise a child” is one that we have certainly heard many times. But as I think of first responders, I think of the various members of our society who must work together to support children and their families as our young people journey from birth to adulthood.
I was given a sad-but-interesting statistic by a colleague last week. In the most recent national mental health survey, young people were found to have the most distress from mental health or substance abuse problems, yet were the least likely to seek professional help.1 This information puts a great responsibility on all of us to be open to our young people.
First responders do exactly that. They are the coaches, the cub leaders and the many others who work with our children, providing guidance and life skills. They are ordinary people who form caring relationships with our young people and support them through their happy and sad times. They could be church leaders, next-door neighbours, grandparents, parents or friends.
First responders can also be the prevention programs taught in our schools that give children skills to cope with many of the challenges they will encounter in life. These are the programs that help kids deal with esteem issues, bullying, friendships and sexuality issues, as well as the FRIENDS for Life program that gives children the tools to cope with their worries.
Often first responders are the professionals who come in contact with our children as they grow. They can be the grade one teacher or the police who come in contact with a troubled youth. They can be the firefighter or ambulance driver who is called for an emergency in the home.
They are the people our children trust and will go to for advice and counsel. They are also the people who will first notice when something is amiss with our children. They are able to talk with the children, and their parents, about what they notice. They may not always be in a position to be able to help, but they certainly can support both the child and the family as help is being sought.
Professional first responders need to show understanding and compassion for what the child and family is going through. They should have a basic understanding of behaviour and mental health, and should be able to make appropriate referrals. If the first responder is the police or ambulance called to the home of a troubled youth, an understanding of youth and family dynamics is necessary.
Ultimately, we are all first responders. As such, we all have the responsibility to show support and compassion for each other. We need to step outside of our own world, with our celebrations and troubles, and take the time to notice and listen to others around us. Each of us can have a powerful impact on the lives we touch, without even noticing it.
When I think of a first responder, I think of my son Kelly. Three weeks before Kelly died by suicide, he was sitting in the hall at school feeling very despondent. A school counsellor on her way to lunch noticed Kelly by himself and stopped to ask him if he was all right. He responded no, so she spent her lunch hour with him, and at the end of it he felt much better. Kelly died three weeks later, but I have always given that school counsellor credit for giving me three extra weeks with my son. I have never met the counsellor, but I often think of the great impact she had on Kelly that day, and in turn, on my life.
It truly does take a village. I love this expression because it describes perfectly the small part we all play in caring for and supporting each other as we raise our families. And, as first responders all, we need to feel proud of the job we do as parents, grandparents, family members, volunteers and professionals.
About the authorDonna is the founder and the Educational Director of the FORCE Society for Kids’ Mental Health Care. When her son Kelly became mentally ill.
Statistics Canada. (2003, September 3). Canadian Community Health Survey: Mental health and well-being. The Daily. www.statcan.ca/Daily/English/030903/d030903a.htm.