Program Seeks 12 Million Trained In Crisis Response
by Erin O’Donnell
Picture this: You walk into your friend’s room for the first time after not seeing him for a few weeks. You’re concerned there is something wrong with him. He has been acting reserved, giving away his things and not returning your calls. He says he swallowed a bottle of pills and he’s scared.
A now international mental health first aid program, supported here in the US by pop stars like Lady Gaga, teaches citizens how to respond to crisis situations like this, and how to recognize the early warning signs of suicide.
12 million people a year are trained in CPR, but only 1 million people have been trained by a mental health first aid program over the past ten years. “Our goal is essentially to take mental health first aid to the same level of importance as CPR,” said Suzi Craig, the Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships and Policy of Mental Health Connecticut, Suzi Craig.
The program does not seek to replace EMTs or psychologists, but to be a first-responder triage support system to help a person get the help they need.
I was fortunate enough to complete the training in November 2017. In a pill swallowing incident, I learned to call 911 and tell the dispatcher if the person is acting unpredictably or violently and, if possible, how many pills were swallowed.
“People want to help but they don’t know how. The training arms them with wonderful tools to help others,” said Craig.
Jennifer DeWitt, a mental health first aide instructor, says suicide warning signs can be hard to decipher from normal ups and downs people experience, but look for these:
- The individual secludes themselves
- They give away belongings
- They have less regard for their safety
It’s important to remember that “they are attention-needing, not attention-seeking,” said DeWitt.
Depending on your relationship with the person, you can even ask them directly, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?” and if they don’t respond—assume they are, says Valerie Cooper, named one of the country’s top 100 instructors on mental health first aid. It’s important to stay with that person until they are given the support that they need and let them know.
“Even if they only took four Advil, that is still an attempt,” said Cooper. “Keeping the person safe and involving them in a decision is important.” She went on to suggest saying “Let’s call a helpline together,” for example.
Cooper said it if you aren’t sure what’s happening call 911 and ask for a “wellness check,” and ask if they have a CII Officer trained in crisis intervention. Cooper, who does Narcane training for opioid overdoses, said sometimes just walking and talking helps someone feel comfortable because you don’t have to look them in the eye directly and it’s good for anxious people.
The class I attended included information on how to decipher the difference between heart attacks and panic attacks and the signs of psychosis, a condition in which a person has lost some contact with reality. Psychosis usually occurs in episodes. Symptoms can include depression, anxiety and social isolation. “The last way we want people to access mental health services is the law,” said DeWitt.
Training provides students with 24/7 crisis phone number including even a “crisis textline.” Texting any word or symbol to “741741” will alert an officer to assess the situation.
The program actually originated in Australia. Betty Kitchener and Anthony Jorm developed the program back in 2001 and it came to the states in 2008. Since then, about one million people have been trained in the program and there are currently 12,000 certified instructors. Kitchener and Jorm gave their permission to the National Council for Behavioral Health to reproduce and update the manual handed out at the training “for the purposes of improving the mental health knowledge and skills of the US public in responding to early-stage mental illnesses and mental health crises.”
The Born This Way Foundation, Lady Gaga’s non-profit adopted the mental health first aid training program and helps to offer it before her concerts across the country. Gaga is known to pop up at many of the programs and shows her devotion to people taking the training. The program receives funding from a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA); a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“We offer it for free because of the 3-year grant. We’re on the last year of the grant which allows us to pay for the instructors and training, while other people have to pay for the training. Our approach following the last year of the grant is working with businesses to sponsor the training. We’ll see if that works in the future—we don’t know. It’s hard to get people to pay for it unless they’ve have a personal experience with mental health issues,” said Craig.
DeWitt says some people are more at risk for suicide including people who have experienced trauma, or have started a new medication, or have experienced a specific childhood experience called “ACE” an adverse childhood experience, or even a mass shooting.
She says 90% of people who take their lives have a mental health disorder.
Males are much more at risk for suicide and they complete more suicides, DeWitt said, because they use more violent methods and are often not taught to cope with and process what they see and hear. Females attempt suicides more frequently, but do not complete them because they use less violent methods like a medication overdose. DeWitt, who is trained in mental health public safety, says adolescents and older adults are most at risk for attempting suicides. Having a mental illness is a risk factor but it’s important to remember that not everyone with depression is suicidal.
The class I took focused on myth debunking to help break the stigma people suffer from mental health issues, like “self-harm is not a mental illness, but it’s a symptom.” “Self-harm isn’t good or bad, it just is,” DeWitt said. “It’s a coping strategy. And often times self-harm is sacrificing a part, to save the whole.”