Mental health first aid: INHS class aims to train community members to recognize symptoms

December 6, 2018

As Ferry County auditor, Dianna Galvan serves the public daily. Now, she also hopes to offer a bit of front-line support for people dealing with depression, substance abuse or mental illness.

That’s why she traveled on Monday to take a new eight-hour class in Spokane called Mental Health First Aid. The course teaches people how to understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders.

“Because we have such a small community, when people come in, they talk to us, and we have time to talk to them,” Galvan said.

“You pick up on people who have addiction problems, or we have a lot of vets. There is special care you have to take because they’re having issues … It’s just recognizing it and helping them know where to go for help. Being in the public, it’s just good to have the knowledge.”

Inland Northwest Health Services recently began teaching free Mental Health First Aid classes to the public, thanks to a $40,000 grant from Providence Health Care that also paid to train area instructors.

The INHS class, currently held on the Riverpoint Campus, will be offered twice a month throughout 2019. The goal is to train at least 480 people.

The class helps students prepare an action plan to help others who are living with mental health challenges or are experiencing a crisis. It covers risk factors, warning signs and how to avoid stigmas.

Topics include common mental health issues, first aid for depression and anxiety, first aid for suicidal behavior, how to recognize non-suicidal self-injury, dealing with panic attacks, how to respond to traumatic events, and understanding substance abuse issues.

Mental Health First Aid USA, under the National Council for Behavioral Health, launched a 2017 “Be the Difference” campaign around learning skills of what to do and say if someone is dealing with issues ranging from anxiety and trauma to suicidal thoughts.

Action plan

Shaun Pitts, an INHS instructor, said the classes aim to teach people how to be supportive, and if needed, to lead others to professional help.

“There is all kinds of specialized training for someone in the field, but there has been a lack of training just in the general population,” Pitts said. “We don’t know how to encounter individuals suffering mental health issues, how to interact with them, and often we’re scared of their reaction.

“It’s just about how to be supportive, understanding and being a facilitator of, ‘Let’s get you some help, and what can we do to help you feel safe?’ ”

Pitts, also an advanced emergency medical technician in Deer Park, said he has learned eye-opening messages from instructing the class. One is that on average, people with mental health issues wait about 10 years before getting help.

He said it’s also important for people to convey the message that recovery can happen. “You always want people to understand there is hope for recovery.”

The class uses the acronym ALGEE to help people remember steps:

Assess for risk of suicide or harm;

Listen non-judgmentally;

Give reassurance and information;

Encourage appropriate professional help;

Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

A bridge

“It’s no different than teaching CPR and first aid in terms of body wellness,” said Steve Lettic, a criminal justice professor from Highline College near SeaTac, Washington.

He plans to teach two Mental Health First Aid classes next month at the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office Training Center for law enforcement staff and, at no cost, the public.

“We need to remember that mental well-being and mental health are just as important. If you have aches and pains, you go see a doctor. What we’re talking about and making people aware of is mental health issues would be the same, and that resources and treatment are available.”

Part of the class approach is helping participants overcome fears or stigmas.

“People can get help, and you shouldn’t be afraid of someone who is having mental issues,” he said.

“Obviously, you should be aware and safe just like in any other situation. However, we’re trying to de-stigmatize the issues and make it so people are more willing to seek help or refer resources. It’s also about recognizing that someone needs help.”

INHS health educator Karina Lees co-instructed the class held on Monday. She said the topic is relevant because mental health has become an increasing problem in the U.S.

“It’s important to implement mental health first aid in the primary care setting as well, and for anyone to recognize signs and symptoms of somebody who might be struggling with this, because we interact with people every day,” Lees said.

“It’s also important for early intervention.”

Emily Fleury, INHS director of health training and community wellness, said the class is expected to be ongoing even after 2019. Beyond the next year, a small fee might be charged to cover costs.

“We wanted to expand this program in Spokane because one in five Americans experiences some type of mental disorder,” Fleury said.

People can use class information to aid a family member, co-worker or someone they meet in the community, she said.

“For a long time, people thought the more you talk about mental health issues, the worse it got, but it’s actually just the opposite. The more people know about the mental health crisis — even the average mental health problems — the more they have the right terminology and know where to get help.

“Then the chance of them helping a friend or loved one is huge.”

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