When someone trips over a curb and skins his knee, odds are good at least one witness will offer first aid. But what if, instead of a physical injury, it’s anxiety that’s plaguing him, or he’s contemplating suicide? Can we count on strangers to offer the kind of help that’s needed in such situations? With the advent of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), the answer will often be yes.
Although it’s relatively new, in principle, MHFA takes the same approach as traditional first aid: offer short-term comfort to someone until professional assistance or support from a family member or peer arrives. It’s just that, with MHFA, the focal point is less visible, whether it’s a developing mental health conditions or a full-blown mental health crisis or overdose.
Created in Australia in 2001 by a nurse and a mental health literacy professor, MHFA is now routinely practiced in a handful of countries, including the United States, and is taught in much the same way that standard first aid is: through an eight-hour course that allows the public to identify, understand, and respond to the signs of distress. Instructors must complete a five-day training; they’re drawn largely from behavioral health organizations, state mental health departments, and mental health and addictions advocacy groups.
In the United States, MHFA is overseen by the National Council for Behavioral Health, the Missouri Department of Mental Health, and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which collectively provide instructors, training, and technical support. Their goal is to make MHFA training as available and as familiar as CPR.
Training Helps People Assess Others with Mental Health Conditions
But it’s not just used in helping strangers on the street—MHFA is equally applicable to friends and family members of individuals with mental illness at any level. The training teaches participants to assess for a risk of suicide or harm, listen nonjudgmentally, give reassurance and information, embolden the individual to seek professional help, and encourage self-help and other support strategies. Role playing and activities that are included in the training can normalize a variety of what would otherwise be potentially uncomfortable situations.
Given the high rates of co-occurring mental and/or substance use disorders among individuals experiencing homelessness, staff in homeless shelters and people elsewhere who routinely come into contact with such individuals have also benefited from MHFA training.
But, interestingly, it’s not just about being there for someone in the short term. USA MHFA states, “Peer-reviewed studies from Australia and across the globe show that the program saves lives, improves the mental health of the individual administering care and the one receiving it, expands knowledge of mental illnesses and their treatments, increases the services provided, and reduces overall social distance toward individuals with mental illnesses by improving mental health literacy.” Research reveals that those who are trained in MHFA have greater confidence in providing help to others, greater likelihood of advising people to seek professional help, greater agreement with health professionals about treatments, and decreased negative attitudes.
MHFA Receives National Support for More Certified Instructors
MHFA is getting support at all levels. In his White House report, Now Is The Time: The President’s Plan to Protect Our Children and Our Communities by Reducing Gun Violence – 2014 (PDF| 192 KB), President Barack Obama called for MHFA training for teachers and other school staff members. For the past three years, Congress has appropriated $15 million MHFA trainings nationwide. Learn more about becoming a certified instructor to train people in Mental Health First Aid.
This article was originally published to highlight the August 2015 theme of Mental Health Awareness. Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.