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17-year-old Israeli’s mental health ‘first aid’ course draws thousands

Young Israelis have been flocking to a new psychological “first aid” course, created by a teenager who became frustrated that mental health for adolescents is too often sidelined.

Some 3,000 people are currently taking part in the free online course. When its pilot phase ends next month, it is expected to become a permanent fixture on the government education portal CampusIL and attract tens of thousands of users.

“Like lots of young people, I did a regular first aid course,” Maayan Cohen, a 17-year-old from Jerusalem, told The Times of Israel.

“I was left thinking it’s quite unlikely I would use what I learned, but really likely I’ll be in situations where people need help with mental distress,” she said.

“I started looking online for mental health courses for young people and couldn’t find anything that wasn’t expensive, so I started looking into the possibility of creating one.”

That was just six months ago, and Cohen’s project advanced quickly.

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Illustrative image: a teenager suffering from depression (AntonioGuillem via iStock by Getty Images)

The launch of the course comes as professionals grapple with the mental health impact of the pandemic.

A big data study from Israel recently showed that mental health issues among teenage girls have spiked since the first lockdowns in early 2020. The number of teenage girls in Israel being diagnosed with depression has nearly doubled since before the pandemic, and their use of antidepressants and antipsychotics has rocketed by 40 percent and 68 percent respectively.

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The emphasis of Cohen’s course is on detecting distress and taking initial action — hence the “first aid” title.

Topics include how to define a trauma situation, how to identify if someone is in distress, and how to assist them.

There is a detailed discussion of how to read adolescents and remain vigilant while not worrying unnecessarily. “There’s an emphasis on recognizing the signs of when people are in distress as opposed to showing regular signs of adolescence,” Cohen explained.

She said she became increasingly interested in mental health issues after hearing of several cases of teen suicide, and also after finding out about the negative impact on teen mental health that the pandemic has wrought.

Cohen said that in a world that many teenagers find increasingly challenging from a mental health perspective, she believes her course can help to raise awareness and promote friendly intervention by peers.

“The overall hope is that if someone is in mental health distress, those around them will have more awareness and know better what to do,” she said.

Cohen is part of LEAD – Israel Youth Leadership Development, a nonprofit that encourages teenagers to take leadership roles in society. It helped her make connections with partners, create a course and get it online.

Mental health charity ERAN supported her, and together with psychologists and psychiatrists, built a 30-hour study program. It’s currently only accessible to people who signed up for the pilot phase, but will be available to all in a few weeks, after the pilot is complete.

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