Mental health first aid training

Washington County residents will soon have the opportunity to be trained in mental health first aid, a 21st century worldwide concept that reached the U.S. in the midst of a period of mass shootings.

The Washington County Behavioral Health Board recently sent two health officials through a full five-day training to become official Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) trainers.

MHFA is an adult education program that teaches laypeople how to respond to those going through an acute mental health crisis, and beginning soon, several free classes will be offered to the public.

“It’s along the tradition of physical first aid, where we want people to be practicing this just as much,” said Miriam Keith, who serves on the Behavioral Health Board and is one of the two trainers. “We want people to be able to recognize the signs, respond appropriately and know what they’re doing instead of just being afraid.”

The concept was developed in Australia in 2001 and has spread across several countries, and evidence-based research has shown that the three-year certification, which requires eight hours of in-class training, improves both the mental health of the person receiving the care and the person administering it.

“It’s for everybody in the fabric of a community, because we can all come in contact with people who need help,” Keith said. “This training is for the layperson, but you’re not taking on full responsibility, you’re just there looking for signs of self-injury or suicide.”

Olivia Holiday, a licensed therapist for L&P Services, Inc., also completed the certification to become a trainer, and stressed that the course is not designed to cut out professional service or use everyday citizens to be the only responders.

“Ideally it’s to end up connecting the person with the right services after the initial contact, whether it’s an immediate response or some type of outpatient care,” Holiday said. “But if we can even just train 10 percent of the community, it would make a huge difference.”

The class is designed to teach a five-step response system, ALGEE, where MHFA responders assess for risk, listen non-judgmentally, give reassurance, encourage professional help, and then encourage self-help.

“Getting them help before it happens can save money, and that’s what this is for,” Holiday said.

Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks said county and city law enforcement spend quite a lot of time and money transporting and responding to mental health crises, often having to make several trips per week to the Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare Hospital in Athens.

“Unfortunately, we don’t really have enough resources in this area to even treat those kind of people,” Mincks said. “We have the trained professionals, but I honestly do not think we have enough.”

Adding an extra layer to mental health crisis response is a step to help close the gap, he said.

“There’s a lot of people here that run into things like that who have no idea what to do,” Mincks said. “It would certainly be an asset to the community so people can have some idea of what to do if they’re in that kind of situation.”

The key, Mincks said, is that responding civilians need to focus on getting the person professional help rather than only trying to deal with it themselves, which is what Holiday said the training is based around.

“We have lost a lot of money dealing with these issues, and we’ve had to scale down on services,” Keith said. “And because of that there are a lot of people in the community that go in and out of crises, and I think people are finally starting to realize that.”

Marietta Police Capt. Jeff Waite said though he does not know how the area compares to others, he does believe there is a need for more attention to mental health issues, as numerous mental health levies in Washington County have continuously failed to provide more funding.

“If a person can be trained to talk that person down and calm them until we get there, that can help us out quite a bit,” he said.

Washington County received about $5,531,000 total state and federal funding for mental health services in 2014, which amounts to about $89 per Washington County resident.

The Washington County Behavioral Health Board will foot the bill for classes, but Holiday said it plans on doing several fundraisers throughout the year so that the board has the option to increase the frequency of courses.

Though a schedule has yet to be set, Keith and Holiday said they will offer a minimum of three classes per year, most likely in two, four-hour sessions, with an ideal 20 to 30 people per class.

For more information about upcoming classes or about MHFA in general, residents can contact Miriam Keith at 374-6990 or visit facebook.com/washingtoncountyMHFA.