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Recent Shooting Sparks Interest in Mental Health First Aid

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January 24, 2011

CHICAGO - Mental health experts say that the recent shooting in Tuscon has sparked an interest in violence-prevention and mental health. The National Council for Community Behavioral Mental Health Care says people with mental illness are no more likely to become violent than anyone else. However, Chicago mental health counselor Cheryl Oseguera says, there are ways to prevent people with mental health issues from harming themselves or others.

With young people especially, it's important not to brush off warning signs as just a phase, she says.

"You might think, 'He's isolating himself because that's what teenagers do.' Or 'He's talking to himself in the bedroom because that's what kids do.' But you should be noticing if this behavior is going on a long time."

Oseguera, who works with Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, says if you notice changes in behavior in a young person, it's a good idea to talk to the family or a school counselor. She adds that it is important to pay attention to adult friends and colleagues, as well.

"Is the person not wanting to go to school? Is the person not wanting to go to work? Are their eating habits changing? Are they not returning your phone calls any more?"

And it often helps to gently point out to a friend if you notice a significant change in their behavior, she says.

"You have to do it without stigmatizing the person - the problem with some forms of mental illness is that it can become so much a part of the person that they don't notice they're changing."

Because of the recession, many people with mental health problems in Illinois have fallen through the cracks, she adds. According to the Community Behavioral Health Care Association, 70,000 Illinois residents lost mental health services over the last year.

Oseguera sees patients at the Portage Cragin program in Chicago, and in emergency rooms where she says patients now have to wait up to 72 hours to get treatment for mental health distress. She predicts that if services aren't restored, many more people will suffer.

"You're going to see an increase in homelessness. You're going to see an increase in crime. You're going to see an increase in emergency rooms being flooded with people. They need to get therapeutic services so they can function the best way they can, just like we all need things."

Information about finding a class on how to spot warning signs and deal with a mental health crisis is available at www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org. More information is at www.lssi.org and www.thenationalcouncil.org.

Mary Anne Meyers, Public News Service - IL