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Bringing awareness and breaking down stigmas to mental illness in teens of Pontotoc County is the goal of the new Project Aware Grant Program at East Central University.

The grant, written by Holli Witherington of the Brandon Whitten Institute, was awarded to ECU in the fall of 2015 and is part of a national program sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Witherington brought Cassie Holloway on board and together they have partnered with 10 other individuals to become youth mental health first aid instructors, with a goal of training at least 750 community members in the county.

Project Aware was born of President Barack Obama’s 2013 call to action, following the tragic shooting in Newton, Conn., in December of 2012.

“Mental illness is often either ignored completely, to be written off as just teen adolescent drama or is glamorized by the media in movies or tabloids,” said Witherington.

Symptoms of mental illness can often appear similar to average teen development, according to Witherington.

“We think training really helps people who work with children, on a daily basis, stop trouble before it erupts,” said Sita Diehl, director of state policy and advocacy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Certainly, one of the best things that any state can do is invest in early intervention. We know from experience that the sooner you address a mental health problem, the easier it is to address.”

One particularly organization in Pontotoc County, the Pontotoc Technology Center, took the initiative and mandated all of its faculty and staff be trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid. After two trainings, 44 staff members were certified as “first aiders,” who will have the tools and knowledge necessary to identify signs and symptoms of a mental health issue and the resources to get them the appropriate professional help before it is too late.

Those individuals or organizations interested in this free training, can contact Witherington or Holloway at 580-559-5815 or 580-559-5161. Training sessions can be provided at ECU or onsite at your agency in Pontotoc County. Professional continuing education units may be available upon request.

For more information, contact the Pontotoc County Project Aware Grant Program via email at or by phone at 580-559-5815. Those visiting can obtain additional information.


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