By Tiffany Rider - Senior Writer
August 14, 2012 - In the event of a physical health emergency, it’s likely that someone nearby will know how to perform first aid. But what should be done in the event a coworker or friend is having a mental health emergency?
Statistics show that 1 in 4 Americans will experience mental illness in their lifetime – from depression to anxiety, schizophrenia to post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and effects from substance abuse. Mental Health America of Los Angeles (MHA), a Long Beach-based nonprofit, is offering a new form of first aid to help the public recognize, comprehend and react properly to signs of mental illness.
“It’s addressing emotional and mental health issues as opposed to a physical issue that somebody is having,” said Dave Pilon, president and CEO of MHA, which promotes mental health recovery and wellness for adults. “When you do physical first aid, you help stabilize somebody’s injury or prepare them for the ambulance. You don’t actually treat somebody. Mental health first aid is similar to that, except with mental health issues.” Individuals can become certified in mental health first aid after a 12-hour interactive training course, which is offered by MHA to professionals, employers, government officials, law enforcement, school teachers – essentially anyone who works with the public.
A mental health nurse and a health education professor developed the training course in Australia in the early 2000s. It was piloted through the ORYGEN Research Center at the University of Melbourne, and the positive results of the program caught the attention of the U.S. National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. By 2008, the council sponsored implementation of the mental health first aid training program through its more than 1,400 behavioral healthcare organizations nationwide.
MHA is one of many organizations across the country working to train citizens as mental health first aiders. According to Chad Costello, MHA’s certified mental health first aid trainer, there are more than 10,000 Americans certified today. Costello led MHA’s first training session the first week of August, which resulted in the certification of 31 people. Those individuals represent 15 different nonprofit organizations in the region, all of whom are part of the continuum of care for the homeless. The training was held at the Long Beach Multi Services Center, which works with many of the newly certified nonprofit employees. The center will host two other training sessions, one in October and another in November.
“It’s a solid curriculum,” Costello said. “There is a lot of information, which is why we have people for 12 hours. But you present various diagnoses and try to demystify them. It’s about understanding what’s going on, but more importantly how you respond to folks. . . . demonstrating that you actually care and sticking with that person as they figure out how and what they are going to do. Rarely is it simple.” Costello said human beings are, in general, reluctant to go get help due to various factors, including the stigma associated with people experiencing mental disorders. Thus, at the core of the program is a five-step plan called ALGAE. The acronym stands for:
ALGAE is used as a device for any mental health issue, Costello said. “Over the course of the 12 hours, that is drilled in. We want everyone leaving that training knowing it backwards and forwards. It’s done so that you concentrate on those different areas with an overview of the various diagnoses.”
While the course does outline mood disorders and other mental illness, Costello said he stays away from the “how” or “why” and focuses on the risk factors and outward presentation of the disorder. In a work environment, Costello acknowledged that because people spend the majority of their waking hours at work, coworkers tend to have a better understanding of how he or she is feeling and acting now and in the past. This knowledge can help a mental health first aider feel more confident in responding to situations and help someone who may be experiencing hallucinations, having a panic attack, thinking suicidal thoughts, feeling depressed and more.
“Part of this training is noticing when things are different,” he said. “That’s a really critical piece, especially if you are being a conduit to care. If you are helping direct someone to a mental health professional, especially for the first time, they don’t know that person at all. They don’t know what they were like. They need that information, whether the person seeking care transmits that or maybe, with that person’s permission, the person who helped them get to care. I think that’s really important information for that mental health provider to have.”
In addition, coworkers are able to help distressed individuals understand how to take advantage of their health insurance and employee assistance plans. “People don’t make use of that,” Pilon said. “If you are a mental health first aider, you can actually push somebody to ask their insurance provider about help available. It’s just that nudge that can actually make the difference from getting help versus not getting help.”
Tony Kaforski, safety guide program manager for the Downtown Long Beach Associates, recently completed the mental health first aid training with a couple of his colleagues. In an e-mail, Kaforski said he was surprised how much he learned from the training.
“DLBA Safety Guides work with the public on a daily basis, so it’s important that we learn the skills to identify potential risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems,” he said. “The instructors and interactive format were engaging, and we’ve shared what we learned with staff. Having this knowledge base allows our team to effectively intervene and connect individuals to the appropriate professional care before a crisis happens.”
The 12-hour program is currently being offered at no charge, however MHA encourages businesses or institutions to make space available for training sessions, provide coffee and snacks or help sponsor training sessions with in-kind donations. “We are hoping to provide it for free,” Pilon said. “We are looking at alternative sources of funding. Obviously there is a cost involved for us to put it on. Right now we are looking at other sources of funding so that we can offer it to the business community here in Long Beach at little or no cost.”
For more information about mental health first aid, contact Costello at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 562/715-5350.
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