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Mental Health First Aid: A New Concept Helping Communities

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

You don’t need bandages, antibiotic salve, or a suture kit. You don’t need to carry any kind of kit at all. This kind of first-aid kit stores all of its contents in your noggin.

Every now and then I read something that truly inspires me. That’s what happened when I read my Chicago Tribune this morning and came across an article about a relatively new concept called “mental health first aid.”

Originally developed in Australia, mental health first aid operates on the assumption that the lay public can help people in mental distress without having to be mental health professionals. It also pivots on the value of compassion.

Think of a time you’ve been walking down a city street and you saw a disheveled person walking towards you who seems agitated or confused. Did you stop to help the person, or did you steer clear of the individual, perhaps even crossing the street to avoid having to cross paths?

I’m no saint here. I’ve done it too, out of simple fear for my safety. But the creators of mental health first aid remind us that a confused person on the street could be struggling with a mental illness instead of being drunk. That person hyperventilating on the subway could be having a panic attack, and that angry person in the pharmacy line may have a terminally ill child at home.

These people need a comforting approach, not fearful avoidance. Community Counseling Centers of Chicago agreed, so they brought mental health first aid to the United States several years ago. Since then, agencies and organizations around the country have trained thousands of community members and first responders to recognize the signs of mental illness and distress, provide immediate comfort to those suffering, and assist people in getting professional help.

The mental health first-aid kit contains five steps:

  • Listen compassionately and unconditionally
  • Assess risk of harm to self or others
  • Provide reassurance and information
  • Encourage seeking professional help
  • Urge self-care and social support

I love this model because it expands the reach of a community to some of its most vulnerable members and fosters a sense of responsibility among those that live there. People experiencing mental health issues are seen as members of the community to be approached, welcomed, and assisted instead of feared and avoided. Stressful situations can be defused, and more people can get the mental health treatment they need.

If you are interested in being trained in mental health first aid, check out the official website of Mental Health First Aid USA, which is managed by the National Council for Community and Behavioral Healthcare as well as state mental health departments in Maryland and Missouri. At the top of the home page, click on “Find a Course Near You” to locate the next training in your area.

I am heartened by the blossoming of this program and the help that it has already provided to those experiencing mental illness or distress. And I’m excited to see the ways it will make life better for so many in the years to come.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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