WILMINGTON -- The school district will teach residents to be "first-aiders" able to assess whether a child needs help with mental-health issues or substance abuse.

"It's not a course that's supposed to teach you how to diagnose. It's not a course that's supposed to make you a clinician. It's not a course that's supposed to make you an expert on mental health disorders," Wilmington Middle School guidance counselor Deb Hornung said. "We're assessing if the youth is in danger of hurting themselves or someone else. That's the main thing."

In eight hours attendees learn five action steps in assessing whether a child may have a mental health or substance use disorder. The course is taught with a variety of components, including interactive role playing, videos, PowerPoint presentations, quizzes and more.

"When someone is struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, or other mental conditions, family members are not sure what to do," Interim Superintendent Joanne Benton said in an email. "Mental Health First Aid training can help every family by giving them critical skills to respond safely and reasonably to situations involving people with mental health or substance use disorders."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010 suicide was the second highest cause of death among those ages 12 through 17. The CDC reported that suicide can be the result of mental disorders. The CDC also found that children from ages 3 to 17 were diagnosed with a number of disorders, including ADHD, depression, anxiety and conduct problems.

Then-Superintendent Mary DeLai selected a number of school employees trained to be able to teach these courses, which began last year. The courses are funded through grant money. The goal was to have those employees teach the course to all other district employees, and eventually provide these courses to community spaces in town.

Those who complete the course are given a book with more information, as well as a certificate showing they have become a first-aider.

Hornung said the main goal is for people to be able to identify whether a child is in an emergency situation and address it in a nonjudgmental way before reaching out to a professional. She said active and nonjudgmental listening skills are key components to the class.

Signs and symptoms that a child may have a mental-health or substance-use disorder can be a major change in behavior, mood and friends. However, Hornung said it's important to know the child and be aware of what is typical behavior for a adolescent before drawing any conclusions.

"It's such a developmental stage of turmoil," Hornung said. "So, just because you're anxious, doesn't mean you have anxiety disorder."

To be certified, attendees have to complete the full eight hours of the course, which is completely free.

"It's really helpful in any aspect in your life -- in education, as a parent, as a sister, as an aunt, as a friend," Hornung said. "You can use it in any capacity."

Hornung and Wilmington Middle School guidance counselor Kelly Laroche are co-teaching Mental Health First Aid Training courses on March 28 and 30, from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. each day at the Wilmington Middle School library. Bethany Dionne, West Intermediate psychologist, and Kellianne Sweeney will co-teach on Feb. 21, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The location is to be determined.

To register for the course, email bethany.dionne@wpsk12.com, kelly.laroche@wpsk12.com or debra.hornung@wpsk12.com.

For information on Mental Health First Aid, visit www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

Follow Kori Tuitt on Twitter and Tout @KoriTuitt.

---reprinted with permission from the Lowell Sun.