Aid Comes First

How I stumbled upon this topic is an interesting tale in of itself. My family likes to watch Jeopardy! every afternoon, a little tradition of shouting answers at the TV.

But halfway through when Alex Trebek talks to each contestant, one person mentioned that wherever she travels, she takes along a stuffed koala bear. My gut reaction, as with most things, is to be critical of what sense that makes. At least until she explained what that koala bear represented.

His name is Algee, named after an acronym used for an action plan utilized in Mental Health First Aid training. For as much as I research about everything mental health-related, this is one program I had not heard about until then.

Mental Health First Aid was created in 2001 by Betty Kitchener, a nurse specializing in health education, and Anthony Jorm, a mental health literacy professor. Kitchener and Jorm run Mental Health First Aid Australia, a national non-profit health promotion charity focused on training and research. The United States is just one of the many countries that have adapted the program from Australia.

The program consists of an eight-hour course that teaches you how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. The training gives you the skills you need to reach out and provide initial help and support to someone who may be developing a mental health or substance use problem or experiencing a crisis. The target audience is more geared toward the common person with a basic understanding of mental health so everyone can have the skills necessary to help others.

According to its website, the premise behind the training is to make a mental health crisis equivalent to that of any other physical ailment. Most of us would know how to help if we saw someone having a heart attack—we’d start CPR, or at the very least, call 911. But too few of us would know how to respond if we saw someone having a panic attack or if we were concerned that a friend or co-worker might be showing signs of alcoholism. Mental Health First Aid takes the fear and hesitation out of starting conversations about mental health and substance use problems by improving understanding and providing an action plan that teaches people to safely and responsibly identify and address a potential mental illness or substance use disorder.

The action plan mentioned above form that ALGEE. Assess the risk for suicide and/or harm. Listen nonjudgmentally. Give reassurance and information. Encourage appropriate professional help. Encourage self-help and other coping strategies.

While I see a tremendous benefit in educating people on the basics of mental illness, I do think that other sources of information are necessary for a fuller perspective of how to view mental illness. From the videos I’ve seen on the program’s website, the symptoms of certain mental illnesses, especially those labeled as “psychosis” tend to be very stereotyped in the typical behaviors to look out for and how to address them. I appreciate the goal to make the training as common as CPR training, but we have to realize that there’s a reason why we stigmatize mental illness: it’s very complex and hard to understand without doing so. Seeing someone having a heart attack is fairly straightforward. A panic attack or any other mental crisis could vary greatly from person to person.

But having a program like Mental Health First Aid is a great starting point, don’t get me wrong there. It’s a launchpad for so much more, especially when it’s targeted toward everybody, regardless of your background or education. And with the outreach it has already made, the website boasting over a million Americans certified, I think we could go the next step forward.

With the knowledge of how to address a mental illness crisis, how can we learn more about how a person might have a reached a point of concern? How can we prevent that from happening in the first place? Prevention should come from both the individuals who fall under the mental illness umbrella and those who are simply offering support. How does society’s view toward mental illness spur on more concerns? What subtle signs and symptoms might we overlook that lead up to needing first aid?

Inevitably, this is me trying to fit a very large problem into something reasonable and compact for anybody to consider. I feel that’s the only way we can actually approach it, as an “average joe.” But you shouldn’t have to be a psychological professional to at least care enough to inform yourself about mental health. We cannot downplay the potential of each of us to make a lasting difference in others’ lives.

Do I think you need a fancy class and certification to address mental illness? Certainly not. If that was the case, I’ve been wasting lots of time writing the past year. Our most powerful resources are not just trained instructors, but our neighbors and friends who have firsthand experience. It’s other advocacy organizations like NAMI dedicated to fighting the stigma. We should be equipping ourselves with as many tools as we can grasp. There is then no limit as to how much progress we could make.

And if a cute little koala gets to be a spokesperson for it all, that helps, too.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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