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Mental Health First Aid: Action Through Education

Individuals in the community witnessing behaviors associated with mental ill-ness can feel overwhelmed and helpless. Actions caused by imbalances in mental health can be difficult for onlookers, but the witnesses to these behaviors may make a difference for those exhibiting them. A training program called Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) aims to teach us how to respond to people in our experience exhibiting symptoms of mental illness in a way that might help them.
Family members, law enforcement officers, teachers, bus drivers, park employees, …all of us… can be instructed to respond to behaviors associated with mental illness in ways that might be effective, according to creators of an MHFA international training program.
Using an acronym like ABC (airway, breathing, and circulation), important for physical health first aid, MHFA uses ALGEE as a mnemonic device to remember an “action plan: Assess for risk of suicide or harm; Listen nonjudgmentally; Give reassurance and information; Encourage appropriate professional help; Encourage self-help and other support strategies” (Mental Health First Aid ® USA). The process is not sequential; techniques are used as trainees feel they’re appropriate.
According to Colorado MHFA instructor Kenna Dickard, classes teach trainees how to be more aware of their response to people with mental illness and to ask important questions, when appropriate, like: Are you thinking about suicide? Sometimes, as with panic attacks, says Dickard, listening may be the most important response, and saying something about your observations may be helpful, like: I notice that you’re experiencing something uncomfortable.
Central to MHFA responses is having respect for the individual experiencing difficulties, and honoring their assessment of their circumstances and the choices they want to make to improve them. MHFA materials explore subtleties in our responses to others that can lead to a range of emotions. According to its literature, MHFA aims to support people with mental ill-ness with a sense of hope (Mental Health First Aid ® USA).
Various communities are targeted in training modules prepared by MHFA practitioners. They include: military and veteran groups, school personnel, faith groups, law enforcement personnel, and members of Spanish-speaking communities. Training also targets an array of psychiatric conditions, including: depression, anxiety disorders, psychosis, substance use dis-orders, and eating disorders.
Coordination of MHFA in Colorado is more extensive than in most other states because of a grant from the state Office of Behavioral Health which pays for a program director, instructor training, and teaching materials. Training volunteers, like those who work at MHFA Colorado, are supported by stipends from AmeriCorps, a national community service organization.
At their office near downtown Denver, instructors Kenna Dickard and Grace Urano spend their time reaching out to communities across the state to coordinate training sessions, organizing a statewide network of MHFA instructors. Urano spends a lot of time working with mental health care providers at the Mental Health Center of Denver. The women are available on request to offer the training to interested communities. Kenna Dickard can be reached at (303) 832-7594. Grace Urano can be reached at (303) 504-6548.

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