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Mental Health First Aid: In a Crisis, Simply Wanting to Help Isn’t Enough

Ethan Call, a college student, was worried when he noticed that his friend—who normally attended church every Sunday—didn’t show up to teach Sunday School that day. He knew she had been struggling with depression and anxiety. So, he texted her and asked if she was okay. She wasn’t.

Gwen Cubit, a mother from Texas, was worried when her son texted her from Maryland asking her to call him—that it was urgent. She picked up the phone and found him in the throes of an emotional crisis—he wasn’t sure if he wanted to kill himself or someone else.

Think about the last time you worried about a friend, a family member or a neighbor. Many of us can sense when something isn’t quite right, but the fear of being intrusive, overstepping our bounds or saying the wrong thing can prevent us from acting. So, far too often, we do nothing to help.

Luckily, Ethan and Gwen knew exactly what to do. They had both recently been trained in Mental Health First Aid where they learned how to recognize when someone might be experiencing a mental health or substance use problem, and mastered an action plan to help.

Noticing the red flag, Ethan left church and drove to his friend’s house. Immediately, the Mental Health First Aid action plan kicked in. He sat with her and listened to her talk about her feelings—without judgment—over milk and cookies. He gave her information about where and how she could access professional help. He encouraged her to turn to her friends, family and faith community for support. Now, Ethan’s friend is working with a counselor and doing much better.  She got help.

Gwen immediately recalled an important strategy from her Mental Health First Aid training: stay calm. She kept her son talking, asked questions about what he was doing, where he was and where his family was. She took his risk of suicide seriously and encouraged him to go to the hospital with his father-in-law, who lived in the area. Her son agreed, and she stayed on the phone with him until she heard him check in with the administrative nurse at the ER. Her son was diagnosed with depression, and is doing much better today. He got help.

Each of these stories begins the same way: a person trained in Mental Health First Aid notices that something isn’t right. And each story ends with a person in distress getting the help they need. But when people don’t know what they’re supposed to do when confronted with a difficult situation—when they don’t have an action plan for stepping in when someone is experiencing a mental health or substance use problem—the stories can end much differently.  Mental Health First Aid takes the fear and hesitation out of offering support to someone in an emotional crisis. It provides critical tools for helping people that can mean the difference between life and death.

Washington County Mental Health Services now has training capacity for both Adult and Youth Mental Health First Aid (MHFA and YMHFA respectively). WCMHS Adult Mental Health First Aid training is going into is fourth year serving our communities. Similar to youth mental health, adult mental health is an 8 our certification training which teaches participants a five step action plan. Those individuals and groups who request the training want to be part of a more responsive and supportive community to those who might be experiencing mental health related issues. People who have taken the course feel it could be helpful in their personal lives with individuals they care for as well as organizations feeling they can better address situations that might occur in the work place. As with the youth training participants achieve more confidence to deal with challenging situations.

youth mental healthThe YMFHA program is part of a larger statewide program called AWARE Vermont and is sponsored by a 3 year SAMHSA grant to help promote awareness among those who work with youth, primarily 12-18, parents and anyone interested in combating stigma and improving wellness in the Vermont. WCMHS has collaborated locally with the Washington County Youth Services Bureau (WCYSB) to provide trainers for this three year pilot project.  AWARE Vermont hopes to train upwards of 2200 adults over the next three years, which would yield a ratio of 1 trained adult per 21 adolescents statewide.  This will greatly increase the supports available for young people ages 12-18, and will also help combat the stigma that is often associated with mental health challenges.  Through increased awareness about mental health issues, stigma can be reduced which will lead to more compassion for those who may be struggling with a mental health challenge and an increased likelihood that a young person will seek and receive help.

YMHFA trainings began this winter, with the first trainings offered in-house to administrative staff.  Since then, we have trained additional WCMHS and WCYSB staff, local school staff, and others in the community interested in the important topic.  YMHFA is an 8 hour training that gives a basic understanding of adolescent development and the signs and symptoms of a youth who may be experiencing a mental health challenge. This knowledge is then practiced in the second half of the training through various scenarios that offer experiential learning.  A simple acronym, ALGEE, is used by the trainees to help guide them through the situation as they offer help to the youth.  A is for assessing for risk of suicide or harm, which is always the first check point.  From there, trainees are encouraged to listen non-judgmentally, give information and support, and encourage either professional or self-help strategies.  By following this structure, people can stay calm and confident as they help the youth. Thus far, the feedback from trainees has been very positive, and people have indicated that they feel more confident about approaching a youth who may be experiencing a mental health crisis, and offering basic supports until a more qualified person can take over. 

In January of 2016, the National Council for Behavioral Health launched the Be 1 in a Million campaign- a national effort to train one million people in Mental Health First Aid. Since the launch of the campaign, more than 50,000 new first aiders have been trained. Today, more than 550,000 Americans are trained in Mental Health First Aid. That’s 550,000 people who would know when and how to react to a person in crisis.   But in a nation of more than 318 million, 550,000 is not enough.  Washington County Mental Health Services is proud to be a partner in that progress.  We can recognize the incredible strides we’ve made in promoting understanding, increasing opportunities and improving the lives of people living with mental health and substance use problems.

There is still more to do, so get trained.  Spread the word. Offer support to someone in need. Because—as Ethan, Gwen and so many like them know—recognizing how and when to step in and offer help can change, even save, a life.

If you are interested in finding out more information, visit www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org.  Please call Kirk at (802) 229-1399 for information on YMHFA trainings or Laurie at (802) 223-6328 for information on adult MHFA trainings.


September 2016

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