A New Kind of First Aid – Helping People who experience mental health problems or crisis
As I was running some errands one day, in the town where I live, I was driving around the side of the grocery store in my van. I saw a young man crossing the parking lot and walking toward the entrance. By now I was driving beside him and to my surprise, he starting yelling and cursing at me, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Were you going to %$#@%$ hit me?”
I didn’t know what to do. In an instant, I could feel the anger and resentment boil up inside me. “I wasn’t going to hit him! I saw him!” I thought about rolling down my window and yelling back. Should I honk my horn at him or just drive away mad? For a moment, I couldn’t think. Then I decided to take a deep breath and try a different approach.
I rolled down my window, gave the young man the most empathetic, apologetic look that I could muster and I said “I am so, so sorry. That must have been so frightening for you. I did see you and I didn’t mean to scare you. Are you ok?”
Instantly, his body language changed. First he looked completely shocked, his jaw dropped and he stood motionless. Then he softened and said “Oh my gosh no, I am so sorry. I am so sorry for screaming at you……. It’s just that I’ve been hit by a car before and…. I am so sorry.”
As he continued to explain I quickly realized that he may have been experiencing some post-traumatic stress due to his accident. We bantered apologies back and forth for a few minutes and then both smiled and wished one another a good day.
I share this story every time I teach Mental Health First Aid Certification. I remind people that mental health problems affect one in three Canadians, so we are likely interacting with people who are struggling every day. This story illustrates a few of the concepts that participants learn in the course. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a powerful act of compassion – caring about others’ pain and using presence and connection can have a profound impact. Mental Health First Aid, like Physical First Aid training is not rocket science. The skills are easy for anyone to learn…and just like physical first aid…it can save lives.
I teach participants to recognize signs and symptoms of mental illness in four areas: mood disorders, anxiety, addiction and substance abuse and psychotic illness. Unlike blocked arteries or broken bones, mental illness is shrouded in stigma. People are reluctant to talk about it and, when confronted with someone in crisis, few know what to do. MHFA allows people to be confident to have that conversation. You don’t have to be a passive bystander, struggling for words or paralyzed by ignorance. By learning some simple skills, you can become a mental health first responder.
Mental Health First Aid, governed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, is an evidence based, interactive, 12- hour course for ANYONE and no previous mental health experience is necessary. It can benefit teachers, health care professionals, emergency service workers, human resource professionals, employers, managers and supervisors, parents, community groups and the public.
In fact, over 200,000 people in Canada have been certified since 2011. The course is now taught in 23 countries around the world. Not only is MHFA catching on and gaining momentum nationally and globally, it’s catching on right here in our own backyard. Since January 2014, I have provided almost 50 training sessions and certified over 800 participants. Most of these events have taken place right here in Muskoka. Here’s what fellow Muskokan’s are saying about the course:
“WOW – incredible. By far the most valuable course I have taken in my lifetime. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have experienced this.”
“Truly inspiring and worth all the time. Thank you! Great work!”
“I feel much more able and confident to respond to mental health issues that may arise at school or within the community.”
Just as a first aid kit doesn’t replace doctors and hospitals; MHFA isn’t a substitute for professional mental health care. While physical first aid provides training on strains, fractures and bleeding, mental health focusses on things like panic attacks, psychotic episodes and acute stress reactions.
Today, in Canada, mental illness is the leading cause of disability. The disease burden of mental illness is 1.5 times that of all cancers combined. Mental illness can cut a person’s life expectancy by 10-20 years. Tragically, we lose 11 people every day in Canada due to suicide. We lose our children, our friends, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and our colleagues. The economic burden of mental illness in Canada is estimated to be 51 billion dollars every year. We can no longer afford to just idly stand by.
I believe Mental Health First Aid can make a difference. I believe that if we were all trained we could turn the tides together. As humans, we are built to fear that which we do not understand. Fear leads to avoidance. Avoidance leads to stigma. People fear those with mental illness and addiction because as a society we do not have a good understanding of them. Mental Health First Aid provides an understanding….and the skills - so that we can BE understanding. Human connection reduces fear…and that’s why MHFA works!
What are you waiting for? Join us and become certified!
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