Are you prepared to give mental-health first aid?
When we think of “first aid,” we likely think of the basic first-aid kit we carry in our car and have in our home to be prepared for medical emergencies—either our own, or to be able to help others in their time of need.
But with one in four Americans living with a diagnosable mental-health disorder, the odds are at some point that you will come into contact with a neighbor, co-worker, friend or family member experiencing a mental-health emergency.
Professional help is rarely close at hand, and most of us aren’t trained to spot signs of mental-health distress, much less know what to do when we see it.
Enter Mental Health First Aid USA—a 12-hour course designed to equip participants with information and a five-step action plan, which will provide them the tools they need to both assess the situation and provide initial assistance until the person can be referred to appropriate professional help.
It’s not just for the man experiencing auditory hallucinations and talking to himself on the street. MHFA is also for the new mom exhibiting signs of postpartum depression, and for the stressed-out father of three who’s suffering a panic attack at the gas station on his way home from work.
“I think it will increase mental-health literacy and decrease stigma,” said Alex Rechs, program coordinator and lead instructor for Sacramento County’s MHFA program. “I think a lot of stigma comes from not understanding and not knowing what to do, so if you know what to do, you’ll be more willing to engage your fellow man.”
Rechs believes having an action plan gives people a set of tools to use in any situation, allowing them to be proactive, where they once might have turned away.
“We don’t want to give people the impression that they take a 12-hour course and they can go out and do therapy,” Rechs said. “But instead of looking the other way, someone who’s trained will have the tools to ask questions, and connect the person with the appropriate help.”
MHFA USA is coordinated by the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Missouri Department of Mental Health. It was first developed in Australia in 2001 and later brought to the U.S. and adopted for use here in 2009.
The course is now being offered through Sacramento County and is funded by Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18.1 percent of adults in the U.S. live with an anxiety disorder, which covers an array of illnesses, including panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder; 6.7 percent live with major depressive disorder; 3.8 percent have a substance-use disorder; and 2.6 percent have bipolar disorder. Another 2.1 percent have an eating disorder, while 1.1 percent of Americans have schizophrenia.
The five-step action plan was drilled into participants’ heads over the two-day course: A, assess for risk of suicide or harm; L, listen nonjudgmentally; G, give reassurance and information; E, encourage appropriate professional help; E, encourage self-help and other support strategies. ALGEE for short.
Anna Park and LeCam Duong—who work for Birth & Beyond—a child-abuse prevention program for at-risk families—both took the training.
“I think it’s very appropriate in any situation you’d use it in, to know that there’s a structure and it doesn’t have to be chaotic and you’ll get to where you need to be for help,” Duong said.
Added Park, “We don’t have a lot of clinical training background, so this sort of first-aid training is very helpful vs. just using your own techniques.
“A lot of our parents are panicky when we arrive, and using these tools has helped me to help them to calm down and refocus.”
Scotté Trudeau, MHFA instructor and former law-enforcement officer turned mental-health educator for the county, stressed that “anyone can do this.”
“You just approach the individual and see if you can help,” said Trudeau. “It may be as simple as sitting with them and talking them through the moment, using the skills one learned in the class or making a phone call. It could be that simple. Whatever your comfort level is.”