Mental Health First Aid Training Helps De-escalate Crises
By Debra Miller, CSG Director of Health Policy
After a community faces a violent tragedy—like Sandy Hook, Conn., or Aurora, Colo., or Tucson, Ariz.—members of the community and policymakers alike are thirsty for solutions.
One program many communities are looking to is Mental Health First Aid.
Rebecca Farley, director of policy and advocacy, and Bryan Gibb, director of public education, both from the National Council for Community Behavioral Health Care in Washington, D.C., provided information about the program during a CSG webinar March 12.
“It is a public education program that is a lot like first aid or CPR. It teaches how to reach out to people, refer them to services and de-escalate a crisis,” Gibb said. The eight-hour training program is offered by more than 4,000 certified instructors in every state, as well as Guam and Puerto Rico.
Mental health first aid teaches the signs of addictions and mental illness, a five-step action plan to assess a situation and help, the impact of mental and substance use disorders, local resources and where to turn to for help.
Gibb said mental health first aid helps people understand what mental illness might look like, but just like first aid, it doesn’t pretend to diagnose or treat illness.
The program originated in Australia and is jointly managed in the U.S. by the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Missouri Department of Mental Health.
Law enforcement officers and other first responders are often among those trained. “Cops on the streets and cops on the beat often encounter individuals with mental illness or addiction,” Gibb said. “Individuals in the criminal justice system are more likely to experience behavioral health issues.”
In addition, Gibb said jobs in law enforcement are high stress and the understanding gained in the mental health first aid training can help officers take care of themselves and colleagues around them.
Mental health first aid often comes up after a tragedy, according to Farley. It can help to focus a community on healing.
“Mental wellness is a key part of community health,” she said. “Often looking back, friends, family members or community members will say things like they sort of knew the something was wrong, but we didn’t know what to do.”
The importance of linking people exhibiting signs of mental illness or addiction to services is a key component of the training.
“Research tell us that the amount of time between the first mental health crisis and seeking treatment is seven years,” Farley said. “Let me repeat that: On average, there is a seven year gap between the time first experiencing a mental health crisis and beginning treatment.”
She added this gap is a direct deterrent to getting an individual on track to recovery.
Several states have taken action to implement mental health first aid programs, according to Gibb and Farley. Their organization has developed a legislative tool kit to help policymakers take action.
Illinois passed a law in 2013 establishing the Mental Health First Aid training program. In Texas, the course is now a requirement for teacher training and certification. Both Arizona and Virginia have appropriated state funds for mental health first aid training. Many communities also have ongoing programs.
On the federal level, Congress appropriated $15 million in the 2014 fiscal year budget and President Obama is seeking an additional $15 million in his 2015 request for Mental Health First Aid training. The program was part of the recommendations of the task force headed up by Vice President Joe Biden after the Sandy Hook school shooting. In addition, the Mental Health First Aid Act has been introduced in Congress, establishing federal authority and funding for the program.
Gibb and Farley said one of their goals is to make mental health first aid as commonplace as CPR. Not only would this help individuals with behavioral health issues, but it also can help erase the perpetuating stigma of mental illness.
“Mental illness is the last illness that people talk about in whispers,” Farley said.
National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare: “State Legislative Tool Kit: Mental Health First Aid”