Learning 'mental' first aid, before the next crisis

Jun 11, 2012

In the wake of the recent murder spree at Café Racer, there have been questions about how to get help for someone whose mental health is deteriorating. Social service agencies are filling part of the gap, by training volunteers to provide what they call "mental health first aid."

The idea comes by comparison to CPR – a type of first aid any of us can learn. The mental health version is a 12-hour course for anyone who wants to be better equipped to help someone in a mental health crisis.

The training originated in Australia. It was adapted in the U.S. by the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, which represents mental health agencies and non-profits.

It doesn’t teach you to be a counselor, but, rather, how to get someone who’s suicidal or hearing voices stabilized long enough to get a counselor involved. Part of the training allows participants to experience a little of what it feels like for a schizophrenic, for example, which was described in detail in this earlier NPR story.

Nationally, more than 60,000 people have been through the training in the last four years. In Washington, nearly 2,000 have been trained, including police officers, firefighters and other first-responders.

In Seattle, Mike Johnson brought the training to Seattle’s Union Gospel Rescue Mission, which serves homeless people. He’s personally trained 75 people (and is offering another training session on July 5-7 in West Seattle).

It gives staff and volunteers “… a real primer in depression and anxiety, and psychosis, substance abuse disorders and eating disorders. And it gives them that learning that removes the mystique, and it gives them a real, concrete five-step action plan that is the same in each situation, but will be tailored depending on the crisis,” says Johnson.

He sees it as a way to prevent situations where the police need to be called. The Rescue Mission makes wide use of volunteers, and Johnson envisions having a corps of well-trained volunteers who walk the streets of downtown, helping to defuse situations where homeless people are acting strangely.

Beyond the homeless

But, the skills are meant to apply far beyond the homeless. Research from Australia shows one of the biggest benefits is giving you the confidence to approach someone who appears disturbed, whether it's a neighbor or family-member. It also helps you recognize different types of mental illness.

Other organizations offer the training in Bremerton, Lakewood and Olympia, according to the website that lists upcoming trainings.

A different, more intensive training is available for people who work with trauma victims. It's called Pschological First Aid, promoted by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

This video is a role-playing enactment of how someone might use the training, as posted by Mental Health First Aid USA: