Dictionary.com defines the term "first aid" as emergency aid or treatment given to someone injured, suddenly ill, etc., before regular medical services arrive or can be reached.
When you add the words "mental health" in front of it, it doesn't necessarily change its meaning, it simply redirects it towards assisting someone who may be experiencing a mental health crisis--such as helping an individual who is having a panic attack, contemplating suicide or has overdosed on drugs or alcohol.
Mental Health First Aid Comes to the U.S.
Mental Health First Aid is a relatively new program, introduced to the United States in 2008. Seeing a need for improved mental healthcare, the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare partnered with the Missouri Department of Mental Health and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to bring the program from Australia where it was created in 2001 by a respected mental health literacy professor and a health education nurse.
Since its creation, the program has been replicated in 16 countries worldwide, and since its introduction to the U.S., more than 15,000 people have taken the course--including those with backgrounds that vary from EMS professionals and law enforcement officials to human resource experts, business leaders and those who work with youth and are members of faith-based communities.
The course is intended for a variety of audiences such as this, as well as friends and family members of individuals with mental illness or addiction, influential professionals within communities, school and college leaders and anyone interested in learning more about mental illness and addiction.
"Just like a traditional first aid program teaches people what to do when someone has a heart attack, has trouble breathing or is injured, Mental Health First Aid helps people know what to do when someone exhibits the signs and symptoms of mental illness," explains Meena Dayak, vice president, marketing and communications, National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare.
The Five-Step Action Plan
The 12-hour Mental Health First Aid course is led by certified instructors who teach participants through a five-step action plan, ALGEE:
- Assess for risk of suicide or harm;
- Listen nonjudgmentally;
- Give reassurance and information;
- Encourage appropriate professional help;
- Encourage self-help and other support strategies.
An important component of the training is for participants to practice the intervention strategy rather than just learn about it.
"We cover a range of mental health issues, everything from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to alcoholism and drug abuse," explains Dayak. But the program digs deeper by connecting people with resources and linking them to support groups. "We let them know who to call for help," she says. "And we teach people how they should respond or talk to someone who is experiencing any mental health issues. In the case of an EMS provider, the program can help them in their job because it teaches them how to respond appropriately to someone who may have a mental health issue. It can help them understand where the victim is coming from and what they may be responsive to."
There is Help Available
The need for such training is apparent, Dayak notes. "We find there are a lot of stigmas around mental health," she says. "It can be difficult for people to accept that a mental illness is an illness. You can go to a doctor and get help.
"When we heard about the program, we knew it could really help people in crisis," she continues. "We knew it could help remove the stigma and let people know it's okay to get help. Overall, the program has proven to be an eye opener for participants. People have become more aware that mental illness is just like any other illness such as cancer, diabetes or a heart condition. It can be common and it is treatable. Most of all, it's gratifying for people to learn that help is available and to find out where it is."