Mental Health First Aid

Many Americans are aware of how often mental illnesses can affect the people they know. But what do we do when those people we know are in a moment of crisis? How do we know what to do, or say or to whom we should refer them when their mental health is at stake? As proponents of improved systemic mental health care have continued to advocate this cause, these are questions that not only civilians but also politicians have wrestled with in recent decades.

By 2014, congresswomen Lynn Jenkins and Doris Matsui had introduced one solution to Congress in the form of the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Act. This act annually allots $15 million in federal grants to train people throughout the country, including emergency services personnel, police officers, educators, primary care providers and even students, in performing “first aid” for mental health emergencies. Such training equips individuals to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders. Specifically, the pillars of MHFA include a five-step action plan to assess the situation and help the individual in need, help in recognizing the signs and the impact of addictions and mental illnesses and education on local resources to which these individuals can be referred for further assistance.

At the heart of the MHFA is the five-step action plan taught during the eight-hour course. This plan instructs and empowers individuals to assess the situation for any risk of suicide of harm, to listen to and encourage the person in need in a non-judgmental manner and to provide information on options for professional help as well as self-help and support strategies.

The president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health recently announced that over 375,000 Americans have received MHFA training. The continued bipartisan confidence behind this program is centered in its evidence-based success internationally, as reported in numerous empirical studies.

The MHFA training is quickly becoming intertwined to this country’s educational framework. As recently as September of 2014, school districts in 28 different states and departments of education in 20 different states received AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) grants to instruct teachers, school staff and other community members in mental health first aid. Moreover, veterans and their families, who are no strangers to the afflictions of trauma-induced mental illnesses, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, recently received learned information and techniques to recognize and respond to warning signs of conditions specific to people in their situation.

Last month, First Lady Michelle Obama, who went through the MHFA training herself, stood in full support of this national program, boasting its instrumental role in removing the distance and stigma surrounding the many Americans with mental illness. Her strong support is bolstered by the proposal to increase the annual spending on this program to $19 million, of which politicians in both major parties are fans.

As the amount of federal spending funneled into this program increases, so, too, will those who gain the necessary knowledge and skills it provides. As Obama, herself, said while addressing a room filled with leaders in the government, business and non-profit sectors, “you never know when these skills might be useful.”

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