Mental Health First Aid

Mental Health First Aid

County program offers insight into mental illness and teaches strategies for intervention.

Jamie MacDonald and Leslie Roberts of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board Wellness and Health Promotion teach a Mental Health First Aid class.

Jamie MacDonald and Leslie Roberts of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board Wellness and Health Promotion teach a Mental Health First Aid class. Photo contributed

Leslie Roberts recalls hearing a mother talk about getting her stepson admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

“Her stepson was angry and acting out,” said Roberts. “She didn’t understand what her stepson was doing.”

The woman had completed a mental health first aid class that Roberts teaches. Mental Health First Aid is offered by the staff of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board Wellness and Health Promotion. The goal of the class is to offer insight into mental illness and teach strategies for intervention.

“She was grateful that the class had taught her what those signs and symptoms were,” said Leslie. “Before the class she thought he was being a problem teenager. After the class she understood that he was suffering from depression, and his behavior had a lot more meaning.”

That is the goal of the eight-hour certification class, which is taught in both English and Spanish. Students learn the warning signs of such mental illnesses as depression, anxiety, trauma, psychosis, substance use disorders and self-injury. They also get a five-step action plan to help the individual in crisis connect with appropriate professional care.

“Students learn specific behaviors or comments that individuals will make,” said Roberts, who is a Wellness and Health Promotions Supervisor. “Such as, ‘Things are never going to get better. I feel like I’ll always be sad. What’s the point?’”

“They get background and statistics on these illnesses, as well as a basic understanding of risk factors, signs and symptoms,” added Jamie MacDonald, wellness health promotion and prevention manager.

There is a standard curriculum and class instructors must be certified to teach it. The class is typically taught on two separate days. “We offer an open enrollment class for adults once each month,” said MacDonald. “It’s a ‘come one, come all.’ Anyone from Fairfax County can sign up.”

Students learn to assess for suicide or harm, listen non-judgmentally, give information and assurance, encourage appropriate professional help and self-help, and other strategies.

“We use the acronym ALGEE, which is the first letter of each skill the students learn,” said MacDonald. “Then they get skills around how to approach someone who might be showing early signs of a mental illness or how to recognize when someone is in a mental health crisis.”

After the class, students take a test. If they pass, they are certified for three years.

“There is a lot of repetition and practice. There are live simulations and scenarios where small groups will practice what they learn,” said MacDonald. “We try to gear their minds toward, ‘What will I do when I’m experiencing a mental health crisis? How will I support someone like a colleague, friend and even a stranger?’”

The re-enactment scenarios also help set limits. “We make their role clear,” said MacDonald. “You’re a mental health first aider when you get your certification, you’re not a mental health crusader. You’re not trained to provide treatment, counseling, or make a diagnosis. That is pounded into their heads.”

Safety is another aspect of the training. “Students are taught to decide if a situation is safe for them to enter and whether or not they have time. If they start providing assistance, do they have time to finish it,” asked MacDonald. “Being clear, careful and thinking through what steps they want to take is important. In a crisis, they have to decide: ‘Do I want to step in or will I be in over my head? Do I need to grab my phone and call someone else? Your first and best action might be a call to 911.”

“Some feel relieved when they realize that they don’t have to intervene in every emergency,” said MacDonald. “People feel inept and paralyzed. The class helps help people to understand that they may not be the best person to step in, but you might be able to find someone else. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

For information on the schedule of classes and to register, see