What would you do if you came face to face with someone who might be hallucinating, or suicidal? What would you do if someone you worked with seemed depressed or showed signs of drug abuse?
By ALAN BAVLEY
The Kansas City Star
Would you be too shocked to act, or afraid you’d say the wrong thing?
A new initiative is under way in the Kansas City area to prepare hundreds of people to deal effectively with situations like these.
Mental Health First Aid is a program designed to reduce the stigma toward people with mental illnesses and to train the general public to recognize the signs of mental illness and respond appropriately.
Seven area community mental health centers have received a $75,000 grant from the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City to train 23 people to teach Mental Health First Aid. Their goal is to give the two-day course to as many as 1,400 people this year.
“We want to make this accessible to anyone who is likely to encounter someone with a mental illness, and that includes almost everybody,” said Mark Wiebe of Wyandot Inc., the mental health agency administering the grant.
“As a mental health system, we have long realized it’s important to get people into treatment as soon as possible so their problems don’t get worse.”
Mental Health First Aid was developed by two health educators in Australia about a dozen years ago. The National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, the Missouri Department of Mental Health and the Maryland State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene worked with the program’s founders to bring it to the U.S.
Since it was launched in the U.S. in 2008, nearly 100,000 people have gotten the training, including more than 6,000 in Missouri and 3,000 in Kansas.
Mental Health First Aid has been in the spotlight ever since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December. In his recent proposal to reduce gun violence, President Barack Obama called for providing the training to school teachers and staff to help them recognize signs of mental illness in young people and refer them to treatment.
“Unfortunately, tragedies tend to focus attention on early intervention strategies,” said Bryan Gibb of the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. “We can’t say if first aid would have stopped these things, but the sooner someone gets intervention, the less likely he is to have a crisis.”
Most Mental Health First Aid encounters are with “people who are just beginning to feel unwell,” Gibb said.
But training deals with a wide range of issues, from offering help to people showing early signs of depression, eating disorders or alcohol abuse to more urgent situations, such as approaching people who may be experiencing hallucinations or suicidal thoughts.
The approaches all have a single game plan, five steps that go by the acronym “ALGEE.”
• Assess the person for risk of suicide or harm.
• Listen to the person non-judgmentally.
• Give reassurance and information.
• Encourage the person to seek professional help.
• Encourage self-help and other support strategies.
“You want to let people know you are concerned, you want to help,” trainer Jennifer Vernon told a recent Mental Health First Aid class at Synergy Services, a mental health organization in Parkville.
“You are always going to be encouraging, not forcing,” Vernon said. “You’re going to speak calmly. You’re not going to freak out.”
Two of the students, Synergy employees Dennis Meier and Lori Caruso, played the parts of a person having a panic attack at a shopping mall and a first aid responder.
Meier looked distraught, standing up, pacing around, sitting down, over and over again.
Caruso approached him.
She sat facing him directly and calmly asked: “Do you know what’s going on right now?”
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Meier answered in an anxious voice. “It’s hot in here. I don’t know whether to sit or stand.”
“I think you may be having a panic attack,” Caruso told him. Take some deep breaths, she advised.
Meeting the person at eye level was the right thing to do, Vernon told Caruso.
“This was your first time. You did a good job.”
The classes aren’t intended to turn people into mental health experts, said instructor Lori Glenski of Tri-County Mental Health Services in Kansas City.
“Your role is not to be a clinician, but a listening ear. It’s more important to be genuinely caring than to say all the right things. Even just sitting with a person may be enough.”
Mental Health First Aid will “get people to talk about mental health and not be afraid,” Glenski said.
“It will reduce stigma, increase awareness, educate the public in ways to react that are helpful, not harmful.”
Betsy Bautz, who took the Mental Health First Aid course last year, found that it has given her a new perspective on the people she deals with as a volunteer court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, for abused and neglected children in Johnson County.
“I think it’s easy to lose some compassion for the parents – why aren’t they doing what they should do,” she said. But with the first aid training, “you can stand back and be less judgmental.”
Bautz said she encourages parents with mental health problems to seek help. She also has tried to make people more aware of mental health issues.
Recently, Bautz was in a meeting with a lawyer who had grown frustrated with a parent involved in a court case.
“I told him ‘You’ve got to understand, this person has a mental illness,’” she said.
The lawyer didn’t appear to react to her advice. But Bautz hasn’t been deterred.
“You just have to keep saying it and hopefully, you plant a little seed.”