First Aid Vital for Mental Health, Experts say
BY BLYTHE BERNHARD firstname.lastname@example.org > 314-340-8129 STLtoday.com | Posted: Thursday, October 27, 2011 12:00 am
Source: Mental Health First Aid, USA
Most first aid classes teach the Heimlich maneuver, CPR and other basic medical techniques. But what if someone feels suicidal, is struggling with an addiction or having a panic attack?
Mental Health First Aid classes can teach people how to help someone experiencing a psychological crisis brought on by a traumatic event or chronic mental illness.
The 12-hour course offers participants a five-step plan to help someone in crisis:
• Assess for risk of suicide or harm.
• Listen without judgment.
• Give reassurance and information.
• Encourage appropriate professional help.
• Encourage self-help and other support strategies.
Students at a recent training session at the Florissant Valley campus of St. Louis Community College learned the signs and symptoms of depression and dispelled myths surrounding mental illness. The college has offered the $88, one-credit course since fall of 2009. More than 100 people have taken the course, including students, faculty and support staff.
"One of the goals of the program is to serve a nice cross-section of the college," said Joseph Worth, chairman of the counseling department. "We really want folks who might be more likely to encounter a distressed student such as a groundskeeper or a housekeeper, to get that student into the hands of someone who might be able to assess their wellness."
College can be a particularly vulnerable time with the combination of stressors including finances, academics and relationships. A majority of college students report feeling sad, overwhelmed or lonely each year, and 6 percent seriously consider suicide, according to a survey by the American College Health Association.
Some colleges have turned their focus to mental health after experiencing campus tragedies. M.I.T. increased its resources after a series of suicides in the 1990s. Virginia Tech University now spends an additional $1 million a year on counselors and psychiatrists after 32 people were killed in a rampage shooting by student Seung-Hui Cho in April 2007.
The most recent event that questioned the responsibility of colleges to recognize red flags was the Tucson, Ariz., shooting that killed six and injured more than a dozen others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.
The shooter, Jared Loughner, had been suspended from Pima Community College in Tucson several months earlier. Several professors and students had complained to police with fears about Loughner. But like most community colleges, Pima had no mental health care system.
In a New York Times article from January on the topic, St. Louis Community College was noted for its mental health programs. The college employs 18 counseling faculty in addition to offering the first aid course. Next month, it will be offering the course to nurses in the Normandy School District.
Although it is unknown if additional mental health services would have prevented any of the campus tragedies, the programs can at least help reduce the stigma of mental illness, organizers say.
The Mental Health First Aid curriculum was developed in Australia about a decade ago and was launched in the U.S. in 2008, with assistance from the Missouri Department of Mental Health.
In the training, participants watch videos, role play and hear lessons from instructors. They learn about the risk factors and signs of addiction, anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia among other mental health issues. They learn how to respond to someone experiencing a panic attack or suicidal thoughts.
Paige Combs, 18, of Normandy, said taking the course had helped her understand what one of her friends was going through with depression.
"You should be respectful of their intentions and not try to hurt them, you should make them feel comfortable," said Combs, who is studying to be a psychiatric pediatric nurse.
'They'll talk about it'
English professors are taught to look for worrisome language in students' essays. Support staff learn not to leave a student alone if they seem to be suffering.
One of the myths about someone who is hurting is that they don't want to talk about it, instructor Emily Lasek recently told the first aid training class at Florissant Valley.
"If they're having thoughts of suicide, they'll talk about it," she said.
The group practiced starting such conversations with each other. They learned the right way to ask: "Are you thinking about suicide? Do you know how you would carry it out?" And the wrong way: "You're not going to do something crazy, are you?"
The key is to express empathy, Lasek said, not judgment. Tell the person you haven't experienced exactly what they're going through, but you can understand that they're in pain.
The New York Times contributed to this report.
Mental Health First Aid teaches people how to respond to psychological emergencies. Here are some tips for talking to someone in crisis:
• Ask caring questions
• Be patient, kind and encouraging
• Restate what the person says to make sure you understand
• Reassure the person that they can feel better with treatment and time
• Judge, criticize or trivialize a person's feelings
• Act frustrated
• Use a patronizing tone of voice
• Be overprotective
• Say simplistic things like "cheer up" or 'smile, it's not that bad"
St. Louis Community College will be offering a Mental Health First Aid class next spring. For more information, call 314-513-4252.