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Town Offers Free Training in Mental Health First Aid


By Ruth Melville

We are all familiar with the idea of offering first aid for physical injuries, from Band-Aids to the Heimlich maneuver to CPR. But what about first aid for mental distress? What would you do if confronted by a person having a panic attack? What aid or advice would you feel competent to offer?

A free public education program called Mental Health First Aid hopes to remedy this imbalance.

The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) program started in Australia in 2001 and has now spread to 24 countries. The United States started its program in 2007, under the auspices of the National Council on Behavioral Health. In the ensuing 10 years, a million Americans have received training in MHFA, which sounds like a large number until you compare it with the 12 million people a year who are trained in CPR. A major goal of the Mental Health Reform Act of 2015, which Congress passed with bipartisan support, was to remedy disparities of care between physical and mental illnesses.

Local congresswoman Elizabeth Esty was a cosponsor of legislation for funding MHFA training nationwide. Thanks to a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Washington, Mental Health Connecticut—in the person of community educator Valerie English Cooper—has been hired to provide free classes in MHFA throughout Litchfield County.

In bringing MHFA to our area, Cooper identifies three changes that she would like to see take place: (1) an increased awareness of the idea of mental health first aid, (2) an increased public interest in mental health, and (3) an increased sense of community urgency. Many business and workplaces offer CPR training to their employees. She would like them to offer mental health first aid as well. Her aim is “to make mental health first aid as common as CPR.”

This May marked the one-year anniversary of free MHFA training in Litchfield County, and 750 people have been trained so far. Cooper has found that local emergency services have been eager to take part, and several towns in the area have joined her in offering training. She says she never knows who’s going to show up at her training sessions: church groups, PTOs, town selectmen, EMTs, scouts.

During the eight-hour MHFA certification course, participants learn, first, how to offer help to a person experiencing a mental health crisis, how to listen calmly and provide reassurance; and secondly, how to direct the person to appropriate professional care. Also covered in the sessions are how to recognize warning signs of common types of mental illness, such as depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and anxiety. Just as people trained to do CPR are not cardiologists, MHFA trainees are not professionals; they do not offer diagnoses or provide counseling. Rather, they learn what to do in a crisis and how to help someone find the care they need.

Cooper is particularly interested in training young people. Less than 20 percent of young adults with a mental disorder have access to mental health services, and studies have shown that they are more willing to share thoughts of suicide with their peers than with adults. And since most mental illnesses start before the age of 24, it is particularly valuable that young adults be able to spot known risk factors and signs of trouble among their peers. At the end of May, Cooper offered a special training session in Litchfield just for college students. She’s also done special trainings for veterans and first responders.

Cooper acknowledges that, at eight hours, the course is a major time commitment. But she is willing to break it up into two four-hour sessions, or to schedule it at various times of the day or evening, on weekdays or the weekend—“whatever it takes,” she says, to accommodate as many people as possible. She can take up to 30 people in a class.

Two trainings are currently scheduled in our area for June—a two-day class in Torrington on June 6 and 13, and an all-day one in Waterbury on June 24—and Cooper has been in contact with First Selectman Sue Dyer about the possibility of hosting a training session in Norfolk. Christopher Little, chief of service of the Norfolk Lions Club Ambulance, would be interested in seeing this happen. “Last year 4 percent of our calls were for psychiatric emergencies. While our medical personnel are trained for behavioral emergencies and follow the relevant state protocols, I’m sure many on our team would take Ms. Cooper’s course. I certainly would.”

The need for greater mental health awareness and access to treatment is clear. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about one in five adults in the United States experiences a mental illness each year, and over half will experience one in their lifetime. MFHA training should also help eliminate the stigma attached to mental illness. As Congresswoman Esty says, “We never say it’s someone’s fault when they break a leg and need medical help, so we should not treat it as someone’s fault if they need help for a mental health disorder.”

Update: An MHFA course has now been scheduled for Norfolk, on June 21 and 28, from 5 to 9 p.m. at Town Hall. To register, please contact the selectmen’s office. For more information on the course, you can contact Valerie English Cooper at 860-471-6715 or by email at VEnglishCooper@mhconn.org.

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