2012: Mental health first aid sweeping the country

The Verde Valley Guidance Clinic’s Mental Health First Aid instructors are Monty Bondurant, Patty May, (pictured) and Laurie Verdier (not shown).

The Verde Valley Guidance Clinic’s Mental Health First Aid instructors are Monty Bondurant, Patty May, (pictured) and Laurie Verdier (not shown).

Whether it was in school, scouting, lifesaving class or at work, most Americans have been exposed to one or more classes in first-aid, CPR, or other procedures designed to help another person in an emergency. We all learned that we don’t need to be doctors or EMTs to provide lifesaving assistance.

Now, the idea of first aid has spread to the field of mental health, providing average folks with the skills and knowledge they may need when a colleague, family member or neighbor exhibits signs of mental illness. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to help someone suffering from depression or dealing with a mental health crisis.

Mental Health First Aid is an international program which originated in Australia, where mental health resources in the outback are few and far between.

It is defined as: The initial help given to a person showing symptoms of mental illness or in a mental health crisis (severe depression, psychosis, panic attack, suicidal thoughts and behaviors…) until appropriate professional or other help, including peer and family support, can be engaged.

According to Mental Health First Aid USA, Mental Health First Aid was created by Professor Anthony Jorm, a respected mental health literacy professor, and Betty Kitchener, a nurse specializing in health education at the University of Melbourne, Australia. The National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, the Maryland State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Missouri Department of Mental Health worked with the program’s founders to bring Mental Health First Aid to the U.S.

The organization says Mental Health First Aid has a strong evidence base. Four detailed studies have been completed and nearly a dozen journal articles published on Mental Health First Aid’s impact on the public. One trial of 301 randomized participants found that those who trained in Mental Health First Aid have greater confidence in providing help to others, greater likelihood of advising people to seek professional help, improved concordance with health professionals about treatments, and decreased stigmatizing attitudes. The study also found that Mental Health First Aid improved the mental health of the participants themselves. Findings from the other studies have echoed these outcomes.

Over 100 people have completed the class offered in Cottonwood at the Verde Valley Guidance Clinic, with many graduates expressing their great satisfaction with the results.

One of the graduates, Rose Boerner of Sedona, is the President of the Sedona chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

According to Boerner, “I highly recommend Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) for any person who may be faced with someone developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis.  The MHFA program not only teaches about mental illnesses, but also offers a comprehensive plan for dealing with mental health crises.  It provides first responders with a plan that includes how to assess a person for risk of suicide or harm. It also teaches how to follow through to help that person receive optimal care and support. 

As a NAMI Family Support Group Facilitator, I found that what I learned in the MHFA class complements very well what NAMI support groups provide.  MHFA also reinforces the principles of support and education that NAMI advocates for persons with mental illness.”

“You’re more likely to see someone having a panic attack than you are to see someone having a heart attack,” says Linda Rosenberg, CEO of the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. Since its introduction in the U.S. four years ago, more than 50,000 people have been trained in 47 states and the District of Columbia.

Participants learn how to detect a number of mental illnesses -- including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychosis, substance use disorders, depression, anxiety and eating disorders -- and how to respond to people who have them. Their response is guided by a five-step action plan, termed “ALGEE,” which stands for:

• Assess for risk of suicide or harm.

• Listen nonjudgmentally.

• Give reassurance and information.

• Encourage appropriate professional help.

• Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

One of the program’s main goals is to erase the stigma associated with mental health illnesses. “It wasn’t long ago that cancer wasn’t openly spoken about,” Rosenberg says. “Mental illness is the last illness that people talk about in whispers.” But that will change, she says, once Mental Health First Aid becomes as common as CPR training -- something she sees as inevitable.

Mental Health First Aid training is appropriate for a variety of community stakeholders, including primary care professionals, non-clinical behavioral health staff, public safety professionals, social services, faith leaders and more.

In addition to training for interested individuals, government, business, and non-profit social service organizations are finding the class to be valuable for their employees and volunteers. The Mental Health First Aid training team at the Verde Valley Guidance Clinic is reaching out to offer the classes for the Northern Arizona Council of Government’s Area Agency on Aging, Verde Valley Medical Center, first responders and emergency workers and others. Anyone who deals with the general public is likely to encounter someone who can benefit from the skills acquired. Learning about mental illness makes most people much more comfortable in dealing with such issues.

Mental Health First Aid does not teach participants to diagnose or treat mental illness, but it does teach one how to recognize some signs and symptoms of mental illness, provide comfort, and if appropriate, refer someone to services.

“We are thrilled to bring Mental Health First Aid to our community,” said Patty May, lead trainer for the MHFA program at the Verde Valley Guidance Clinic “This important educational effort goes a lot further than emergency intervention; it really helps people understand the shroud of fear and misjudgment facing individuals and families who experience mental illnesses and addiction. It will help rid this community of the associated stigma and move more and more people toward recovery.”

When MHFA instructor training became available, Verde Valley Guidance Clinic CEO Robert Cartia sent Ms. May and other staff members to receive the training and began scheduling the classes free of charge at the Clinic’s Cottonwood campus. The next 12-hour class will be held on successive Fridays, Sept. 28 and Oct 5.

To register, call 634-2236 and ask for Sharon Stingerie.

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