There’s a lot of talk about Mental Health First Aid these days. In particular, the National Council for Behavioral Health is trumpeting its 8-hour first aid course as being a program that “teaches you how to help people developing a mental illness or in a crisis.” The classes have spread nationally and are even being funded, in some instances, by government grants. Recently, both the House and the Senate have put forth bills to further fund the introduction of Mental Health First Aid Training’s throughout the US.
Mental Health First Aid is a relatively new initiative. Those taking the course are given a broad overview of mental illness: how to recognize the signs, how to gauge the impact of mental illness, the most effective way to provide support and resources, and action plans for handling specific situations. In short, Mental Health First Aid courses attempt to give the lay individual the confidence and skills to support an individual until he or she can get appropriate professional help. All too often, those afflicted with mental illness hide in the shadows or don’t know where to turn for help. This innovative course gives people the tools and the desire to exercise their social responsibility and help those who are suffering from these illnesses.
The pitch by Mental Health First Aid advocates is a good one. The analogy works. It appeals to one’s sense of citizenship. People can identify with the term “first aid” and see learning it as an effort to becoming part of a community of people who are willing to intervene in a mental health situation. The expression “first aid” puts the discussion about mental health in terms that many people can relate to. However, it may also be a gross over-simplification and a sense of caution needs to be exercised.
A Step in the Right Direction
“The real benefit of Mental Health First Aid,” according to CHOICE of NY Board of Director Member Ashley Brody, “is the contribution these programs make to de-stigmatizing mental illness. They create a forum for people to talk about mental illness, learn to identify it in others, and to become more sympathetic in their reactions to people struggling with mental health issues.”
Every so often, a new program comes along that becomes the latest and greatest concept in addressing mental illness in our society. Everyone jumps aboard and touts it as the “greatest thing since sliced bread.” In time, we find that even though it’s not necessarily the magic potion everyone hopes for, it does have something to add to the dialogue and conveys a valid message. The solution is never quite that easy. Such is the case with Mental Health First Aid.
In 8 hours you can, at best, paint the broad strokes. It’s a combination of sensitivity training and information dissemination. There’s a bit of the: “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” going on here. The danger lies in enabling those who aren’t qualified to do so, to make determinations about someone’s mental health and in some cases, turn wheels into motion that might make a situation worse. But that is the worst case scenario. The best case scenario is that it’s a powerful sensitivity training course that builds an awareness and understanding, and takes some of the mystery out of mental illness.
So let’s celebrate Mental Health First Aid for what it is rather than what it is not. It is most definitely a step in the right direction to mainstreaming the conversation about mental illness. By providing people with a formalized, yet safe, positive, and supportive environment in which to explore their own role in contributing to the solution, Mental Health First Aid is a big step forward. And we applaud each and every person willing to make the commitment and take the time to participate in the course.
The Mental Health First Aid USA website provides a search function so that you can find a course being offered near you. We hope you’ll choose to invest the 8-hours it takes to complete the program. You might just find yourself preventing a suicide, helping a friend, co-worker, or neighbor navigate a crisis, or leading a family member to the resources and support she so desperately needs.