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Helping to Prevent a Crisis: Mental Health First Aid

PHOTO: People around the nation are taking a new type of first aid course. It's called mental health first aid, and experts say it can help prevent a crisis and even save lives. Image credit:  Corbis.  All Rights Reserved.
PHOTO: People around the nation are taking a new type of first aid course. It's called mental health first aid, and experts say it can help prevent a crisis and even save lives. Image credit: Corbis. All Rights Reserved.
August 20, 2012

CHICAGO - If a person has a heart attack or chokes in a public place, there's a pretty good chance that someone with first aid training will help. But when someone has a mental health crisis on the street it often frightens others away.

Mental health professionals like Bob Hewitt, director of training and advocacy for mental health services, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, say it doesn't have to be frightening. There are ways to help and prevent a worse crisis.

Many people are learning how by taking a course in "mental health first aid." Hewitt took the course and says one of the things it teaches is the importance of listening and engaging without judging. He gives an example of what might happen when, without training, someone might try to help a person in extreme distress.

"Like if you say, 'Why are you so upset?' Being at such a vulnerable spot, the person may take the 'so' as being judgmental. But if you just say, 'You know, you sound upset. Do you want to talk?' It can be something that allows someone to open up."

Hewitt says anyone can take the course. You could even save a life by preventing a suicide. The course started in Australia in 2001 and has spread to the United States, Canada, and several other countries.

Mental health experts say you are more likely to encounter a person in a mental or emotional crisis on the street than someone having a heart attack. That's because mental disorders are more common than heart disease and cancer combined. Hewitt says that anecdotally that seems true.

"Because I've seen people on the street over my lifetime who seemed to be really upset or they were talking to themselves, and I've never run into anybody on the street having a heart attack."

Hewitt says early intervention helps prevent more serious mental illness. That's why many experts are hoping that mental health first aid becomes as common as CPR training.

It does seem to be getting more popular. According to The National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, 50,000 people in 47 states have taken mental health first aid in the last four years. Hewitt sees another benefit to more people taking the training.

"I think it really reduces stigma, because as people become less frightened of people with mental illness symptoms, they're more open to seeing them as people; they don't just see the symptom."

Hewitt says if a person seems to be in extreme distress, you can prevent a suicide by asking directly if he is considering hurting himself. In the course you learn never to leave such a person alone and, if the person doesn't seem willing to go to a hospital, to call 911 and ask for a CIT, a crisis-intervention-trained police officer.

More information is at mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

Mary Anne Meyers, Public News Service - IL