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Mental Health First Aid Seen as a Way to Identify Problems Early

Del. Rob Krupicka (D-45) leads effort to expand training for workers on the front lines.

Alexandria City Hall

Alexandria City Hall Photo by Michael Lee Pope.

In her role as a caseworker for Adult Protective Services, Wilma Roberts has seen it all. One of her clients said a stranger entered through a window and stole a left shoe. Another claimed that someone was lurking in the mirror. Roberts, who has been trained in a concept known as mental health first aid, knows how to respond.

“The first thing you do is listen patiently. You don’t argue. You don’t make it seem like they are a liar,” said Roberts. “This person may need more help than you are able to offer.”

Now that training may expand dramatically in the wake of a school shooting in Connecticut, where a gunman blasted his way into an elementary school and killed 20 students and six adults. Del. Rob Krupicka (D-45) has introduced legislation that would add new full-time staff positions at every community services board in Virginia, which would be responsible for training individuals in mental-health first aid. That’s about 40 new mental-health professionals across the commonwealth. A budget amendment would provide grant funding for local school districts to fund training sessions for students and school officials.

“People need to be aware of the complexity of mental-health issues, and they need to know how to identify them and be sensitive to the challenges that go along with them,” said Krupicka. “Having a mental-health first aid training program in place can really help people identify issues and help people get the support and services they need so that we can prevent someone from going undiagnosed or unidentified.”

THE CONNECTICUT school shooting has already prompted a high-profile debate about gun control, with some advocating increased regulation while others are arguing for more armed guards. Reforms to mental health services have not received as much attention, although Krupicka says addressing the problem of gun violence requires a more proactive approach to identifying people suffering from mental illness. The question for lawmakers is whether or not members of the General Assembly are ready to take action.

“I doubt it,” said Kyle Kondik, analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “I just don’t see Sandy Hook having a lot of practical legislative impact in Virginia, whether it’s through gun control or even mental health issues.”

Mental health first aid is a relatively new phenomenon, first created in 2001. The idea is an extension of the concept of first aid into identifying signs of mental illness and being able to know how to respond appropriately. The most important part of the training encourages participants to remain calm and not escalate the situation.

“Being on the front lines, you don’t always know if someone has a mental illness or if they are just having a bad day,” said Evelyn Quiles, an administrative analyst who works in the Alexandria JobLink office on Beauregard Street on the West End. “This training taught us to not pass judgment so quickly, which could lead to the wrong conclusions.”

THE COST WOULD BE anywhere from $3 million to $5 million, depending on how many people receive the training. Krupicka says he’s not yet ready to explain how he will come up with the funding for the program, but he says he has some ideas he will be able to unveil when the budget amendment is considered. The cost of adding staff to every community services board would be about $3 million. The grant funding could be as much as $2 million, depending on the scale of the effort.

“Generally speaking, there are lots of moving parts in the budget and there are opportunities to move things around so you can make something like this work,” said Krupicka. “If we are committed to mental health safety and we are committed to improving our mental-health services in Virginia, then we’ve got to be willing to put the resources into them.”