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Mental Health First Aid - So You Can Help, That's Why

Mental Health First Aid is to mental illness as CPR is to heart attack.  I discussed mental health first aid in a post a few years ago, and was pleased that a clergy colleague took the training in Iowa, to his great benefit, according to his report.  The training describes major serious mental illnesses and gives strategies for evaluating and responding to crisis situations.  It does not train people to be counselors.  It equips the general public, nonprofessionals to provide emergency assistance, in advance of professional help.

Question: Who Benefits From Mental Health First Aid

This week I attended a NAMI meeting that introduced the training to Central Oregon.  The trainer asked us, Why would somebody want to take MHFA training?  One person said he needs more tools to deal with his family member.  I said it reduces anxiety in a crisis if you know what to do.

My wife later noted our curious perspective.  We described the benefit to those who would take the course.  She countered, the reason to get the training is the same as the reason to get CPR training -- if you know what to do, you can help somebody.  The benefit is to the person who needs your help.

Wow.  I wonder if our answers revealed a subtle kind of stigma.  Even I, who could benefit from somebody who knows what to do for me, did not think of making that appeal.  I don't expect help.  I don't expect anybody would want to help.  I certainly don't expect that anybody would want to spend eight hours learning how to help me, or my kind.

Then I came across Elyn Saks' TED talk.  Elyn Saks is a law professor at USC.  She has schizophrenia.  Her story includes people who knew how to get help for her, and other people who didn't.  The help she received was sometimes not so helpful.  But other times and eventually, it helped her graduate from Yale Law School, have a successful career, and become a powerful advocate for just and humane treatment for people who are hospitalized with a mental illness.

Answer: Human Beings Who Have Worth

When Saks needed help, she did not look or speak like she does today. Those who did help had to see beyond the crisis, had to recognize the professor, the wife, the advocate, the human being.

When we are in crisis, we are not attractive.  We don't have those soft kitty eyes that invite help.  We are angry, distrustful, argumentative, accusatory, loud, unpredictable, confused and confusing.  We don't listen to reason.  We don't express appreciation.  We don't make it easy.

We Are Like You

A law professor/psychiatrist responded to Saks' concerns about restraints, These people are psychotic.  They are different from me and you.

When we are psychotic, we don't act like you.  But we are not different from you.  We simply need help.

Last weekend I attended a church convention.  The resolution up for debate was about posting Leave Your Guns At Home signs in churches.  I had neither voice nor vote, so I didn't work up an opinion on the matter.  I was also able to leave the room when I heard one argument against the proposal.  It ran roughly like this: We don't want a sign that will tell the crazies there's nobody to stop them when they come in to shoot the place up.  Yes, he used the word crazies.

Well, I did work up one opinion.  I want that speaker's church to post a sign to warn people with mental illness that somebody inside is packing.  In case we are in trouble, we need to know where it is not safe to go.

There is Something You Can Do

From outside the meeting, I heard somebody else remind the gathering of all the shootings that have occurred in Gun Free Zones.  It called to mind the one mass shooting in recent memory that didn't happen.  It wasn't at Fort Hood or in the Pentagon, where lots of people were packing, and lots of people died anyway.  No, it was in a gun free zone, the grade school in Decatur, Georgia where Antoinette Tuff convinced Michael Hill to surrender.  She relied on the skills she learned in church.  Church -- who'd have thought it?

Antoinette Tuff saved lives, including the life of a young man who was off his meds because his Medicaid expired, so he was having a mental health crisis.

Most people you ever come across whom you could help with Mental Health First Aid will not be armed.  They will pose no danger to you. They will be a friend who is at the end of his rope, a family member who can't leave the house, an agitated stranger in the grocery line. They will be human beings like you.

You don't have to be afraid.  In fact, you could help.  You could even save a life worth saving.

This link help you find the Mental Health First Aid training nearest you.

sign in public domain


  1. I have tears in my eyes and in my heart. I would have had the same initial reaction about learning to help someone in a mental health crisis - I would want to shield them and get them to a "better place" - where they could feel safer, calmer and where others wouldn't feel fearful of their angst. Never would I have thought first of someone learning MHFA to perhaps help me when I might need it next.


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