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Commentary: What To Do Until Help Arrives

— Nearly everyone is familiar with the concept of First Aid. Scouts learn it. Teen-agers and adults take First Aid Courses at their local Red Cross or in adult education programs. Taking such a course doesn't make you a professional but it does mean you can provide emergency support until professional help arrives.

So it is with Mental Health First Aid, a concept that has traveled to 14 countries around the world. There have been four detailed studies and several journal articles describing how Mental Health First Aid Helps. One study found that those who took the course had much more confidence in providing help and were more likely to tell people to seek professional health. Those taking the course found that stigmatizing attitudes were decreased and that they themselves had improved mental health.

Let's be clear. The course does not prepare someone to diagnose mental illnesses or provide therapy. It teaches people how to aid someone showing symptoms of mental illness until the right help can be found. It will also eventually create a community where those in crisis do not go unnoticed and get the help they need in time.

The 12-hour course that will be offered to the Alexandria public for the first time will explain the potential risk factors and warning signs for a range of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, trauma, psychosis, eating disorders, substance abuse disorders and self-injury. It will describe the various mental health disorders in the United States, how prevalent they are, and why we need to reduce stigma in communities, a barrier to both seeking treatment and getting it.

Those taking the course will be offered a five-step action plan offering the skills, resources and knowledge needed to assess the situation, take appropriate interventions and help an individual connect with the right professional care. They will learn what is available to help someone with a mental health problem.

Why is the City of Alexandria offering this training? In the beginning, the Department of Community and Health Services looked into the program because there was no formal prevention or education services for adults that dealt with mental health and substance abuse issues. There was also a need to be consistent with the City Council strategic plan that states that the city will “provide a comprehensive and cohesive system of prevention, early intervention and treatment services to those Alexandrian most in need.” This training had also been proven as a way to reduce stigma.

People in the Alexandria community expressed the need to know more, voices from the business and faith community as well as those serving our citizens in need. So the department arranged to have four of the staff become certified Mental Health First Aid trainers and two more are currently receiving training. This will make it possible to offer nine training courses per year with about 20 people in each course. This means the department can train 180 people a year.

The department has already offered two trainings for staff and volunteers at Alexandria homeless shelters because they serve many individuals with mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Potential students include those in the business and faith communities, school personnel, public safety first responders and other not-for-profit agency partners. There are also employees of the department who would benefit from such training if they have not had formal education in these issues.

But just as traditional First Aid benefits anyone who takes it, so would the Mental Health First Aid training. Mental illness and substance abuse are far more common than current prejudice would suggest. You would want to know what to do if someone fainted, or was badly cut or burned, so wouldn't you want to know what to do when someone you care about is in crisis?

You must register for the course by Sept. 28. It is limited to 20 participants per class and the day class is filled. To register, email Donielle.Marshall@alexandriava.gov. For more information about Mental Health First Aid, visit mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

Mental Health First Aid

For the first time in Alexandria, Mental Health First Aid Training will be offered to the public with day and evening sessions beginning on Oct. 9 The 12-hour course teaches risk factors, warning signs and symptoms of mental health and substance abuse disorders, effects of the illnesses and an overview of treatments. It also offers a five-step action plan for helping someone with symptoms.

Mental Health First Aid helps paraprofessionals and laypersons provide support until an individual is linked to professional resources.

To apply for the course you must register by Sept. 28. Each class is limited to 20 participants. The day session will be on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 11, 16 and 18 from 1 to 4 p.m. The evening session on Oct. 9, 11, 16 and 18 from 5 to 8 p.m.

To register, email Donielle.Marshall.... Attendees will receive a three-year certification in Mental Health First Aid.

For more information about Mental Health First Aid, visit mentalhealthfirst aid.org