Mental Health First Aid

Thanks to Kalamazoo County Community Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services (KCMHSAS) for providing me with a full scholarship to attend this training, I went to an 8-hour Adult Mental Health First Aid course yesterday afternoon. According to their website, this course “teaches you how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. The training gives you the skills you need to reach out and provide initial help and support to someone who may be developing a mental health or substance use problem or experiencing a crisis.”

The program was initially developed in Australia and has since been adapted for use in over 20 countries, including the United States. The main goal is to equip people with the tools they need to start a dialogue about mental health so that individuals who are in crisis can get the help that they need.

“Most of us would know how to help if we saw someone having a heart attack—we’d start CPR, or at the very least, call 9-1-1. But too few of us would know how to respond if we saw someone having a panic attack or if we were concerned that a friend or co-worker might be showing signs of alcoholism.

Mental Health First Aid takes the fear and hesitation out of starting conversations about mental health and substance use problems by improving understanding and providing an action plan that teaches people to safely and responsibly identify and address a potential mental illness or substance use disorder.” The Mental Health Action Plan utilizes the following acronym: ALGEE (pronounced like the word, “algae”)

  • Action A: Assess for risk of suicide or harm
  • Action L: Listen nonjudgmentally
  • Action G: Give reassurance and information
  • Action E: Encourage appropriate professional help
  • Action E: Encourage self-help and other support strategies

In the course, we learned the signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety disorders, suicidal behavior, non-suicidal self-harm, psychosis, and substance use disorders. We did a lot of group work, where we were given hypothetical situations and asked to use the Mental Health Action Plan to determine how to help the individuals in our case studies. We learned that the action plan is non-linear, meaning that you don’t necessarily complete all of the steps in order and you don’t have to complete all of the steps in each situation.

There were a dozen individuals in the class with me and the majority of them are social workers, but there were a few people who work outside of the mental health/substance abuse field, including business professionals, a college student and so on. I think that everyone found the course to be helpful. Much of the material seemed like common sense to me, but that may be because I have lived a lot of it. I found it interesting listening to people talk about the signs and symptoms. For example, we did an activity related to hearing voices (psychosis) in which we broke into groups of three and two people had a conversation with each other while the third person whispered into one of the other people’s ears. Everyone was shocked at how distracting this is but I have experienced auditory hallucinations, so I was not very surprised. I’m glad that it helped them to better understand what an individual that is hearing voices might be experiencing.

I think that the most important activity of the day was breaking into groups of two for role playing, having a conversation with a friend that we think might be suicidal, and asking them directly, “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” or “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” This activity is required in the course because how can we help someone who is suicidal if we can’t even ask them if we are? I had never said those words out loud and it was hard but we all did it and now I know that I can. I guess I just assumed that I would be able to do it before. We learned not to ask vague questions such as, “Are you thinking about harming yourself?” or “You’re not planning on doing anything crazy, are you?” because the individual may not see suicide as harmful or crazy. We need to be very direct. If the person says “yes,” there are four follow-up questions to ask:

  1. Do you have a plan?
  2. Have you decided when you would do it?
  3. Have you collected the things you need to carry out your plan?
  4. Do you have another plan?

I’m going to share two crisis resources here.

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). It is “a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
  • The Crisis Text Line is a 24/7 anonymous service for anyone experiencing any kind of crisis. Text 741741 or message them on Facebook and you will be connected to a trained counselor. If your cell phone plan is with AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, or Verizon, texts to 741741 are free of charge. If you have a plan with a different carrier, standard text message rates apply.

We covered a lot of material throughout the day, but we didn’t have to try to memorize everything because we were given a copy of the book, “Mental Health First Aid USA” to keep. It’s full of information about mental health conditions, plus statistics and vetted resources. KCMHSAS also provided us with a detailed resource list specific to our county.

If you’re able to attend a Mental Health First Aid training, I highly recommend it. Did you know that 19.6% of American adults (1 in 5) have a mental disorder in a given year? This is equivalent to 45.6 million people. These types of disorders can have a huge impact on their education, work, relationships, and health. Early intervention can greatly reduce the impact and first aiders can make a big difference by helping individuals that are in crisis to have their needs met. Can you imagine what the world would be like if we had as many people trained in Mental Health First Aid as we do in First Aid and CPR?

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