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Becoming a first responder for mental health

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Many people have attended CPR or First Aid classes given by the American Red Cross and gained the skills to help someone in a time of need. There is a certification course for mental health issues called Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) which can give you the tools to assist someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

Mental Health First Aid is an evidence-based public health training program begun in Australia in 2001. In 2008, the National Council for Behavioral Health (NCBH) brought the program to the United States. In 2015 it was implemented by the New York City Police Department as a new approach to handling a mental health crisis 911 call.

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MHFA has rolled out in communities across the country, including in the Roaring Fork Valley. The eight-hour mental health workshop was presented to staff from the Garfield and Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office on March 8 at the Carbondale Public Library. The course was taught by certified MHFA instructor, Tom Gangel. He is the operations manager for training and outreach for Mind Springs Health.

According to the NCBH website, “the [MHFA] training helps you identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders.” To receive an MHFA certification, you must complete the course, through a certified instructor, and pass the MHFA-USA National Exam. Certification is renewed every three years.

Relevance and authenticity are the drivers in shaping the program’s curriculum. The MHFA website states the U.S. program “continually consults with people living with mental illnesses and addictions to ensure the program content accurately reflects their experiences and perspectives.”

While the Mar 8 training centered around a law enforcement officer’s contact with someone experiencing a mental health crisis, special note was made for the need of taking care of the First Aider following an interaction. Gangel emphasized to the group to ask themselves: Have I decided what I will do for self-care? Who can I debrief with now? If I feel upset or distressed later, who can I call?

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According to the MHFA website, the training’s effectiveness was evidenced when “a trial of 301 randomized participants found that those who trained in Mental Health First Aid have greater confidence in providing help to others, greater likelihood of advising people to seek professional help, improved concordance with health professionals about treatments, and decreased stigmatizing attitudes.”

Destigmatizing issues of mental illness and addiction and getting people to respond in a caring and helpful way is essential to finding positive solutions and ensuring successful outcomes for the community. 

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“I absolutely think that there’s a stigma, and it’s something that we think about and talk about and work on all the time,” says Executive Vice President of Mind Springs Health, Michelle Hoy. Introducing MHFA training has helped remove some of those negative labels.

When you visit the Mental Health First Aid Colorado website at www.mhfaco.org, the banner reads, “Break the Stigma. Educate Yourself.”  They offer two types of courses — adult and youth. Both courses are offered in Spanish. 

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The adult MHFA program is, according to the website, “intended for all people and organizations that make up the fabric of a community.” These include civic and parent organizations, professional associations and clubs, hospitals, and nursing homes. Professionals who participate include law enforcement officers, human resource directors, primary care workers, and leaders in faith communities. Friends and family of individuals with mental illness or addiction will also find the training beneficial.

Youth MHFA is primarily designed for adults who regularly interact with young people, ages 12 to 18. It is intended for parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, school staff, peers, neighbors, and health and human services workers.

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Hoy adds, “I have an internal cadre of trainers that go out and give this training.”

A five-day certification course to become a Mental Health First Aid trainer will take place May 13 – 17 at Colorado Mountain College in Aspen. The course is available, free of charge and open to the general public. Course fees are covered by sponsors Aspen Skiing Company’s Caring for Community Fund, Aspen Valley Hospital, Pitkin County Healthy Community Fund, City of Aspen, Aspen School District, and Mind Springs Health.

Gangel explains, “This Mental Health First Aid Train the Trainer event is a great opportunity to take the first step towards making Mental Health First Aid as ubiquitous in the Roaring Fork Valley as CPR and physical First Aid training.” 

If you are interested in becoming an MHFA trainer, contact Tom Gangel at TGangel@MindSpringsHealth.org or 819-2625.

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