Dave's Dream: To permanently endow Mental Health First Aid position

David Johnson: "The thing is that people use the skills they learn. It’s not a tool that rusts in the toolbox. It’s one that people take out and use. And, bottom line, it saves lives.” Photo: Doug Stremel.

David Johnson: "The thing is that people use the skills they learn. It’s not a tool that rusts in the toolbox. It’s one that people take out and use. And, bottom line, it saves lives.” Photo: Doug Stremel. by Jeff Burkhead

If he could, David Johnson, retiring CEO of the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, would see to it that everyone in Douglas County received training in Mental Health First Aid.

While that scenario may seem improbable, Johnson would like nothing better as he departs from the job he’s held for the past 16 years than to see that Mental Health First Aid training is made available to the community in perpetuity.

That’s the goal of a fundraising campaign called Dave’s Dream.

Dave’s Dream hopes to raise $1 million through the Bert Nash endowment fund to create and sustain a permanent Mental Health First Aid instructor/coordinator position, so this life-saving training will be offered in the community on an ongoing basis.

Johnson, who is retiring the first of July, has had a passion for Mental Health First Aid since he heard about the training course 10 years ago. Johnson was one of the first certified trainers of Mental Health First Aid in the United States. He has also helped to bring awareness to federal lawmakers by being part of two congressional briefings about the importance of Mental Health First Aid training.

“In 2007, Sandy Praeger, when she was Kansas insurance commissioner, had a meeting in Washington, D.C., that she wasn’t able to attend and Mental Health First Aid was going to be the subject. So she asked Dr. Roy Menninger and me to attend in her stead,” Johnson said. “I got to meet the developers of the program before it was here in this country and learn about its remarkable spread around the world.”

Mental Health First Aid, which teaches how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders, was developed in 2001by two healthcare professionals in Australia and the program has now expanded to more than 20 countries. In the United States, Mental Health First Aid is the flagship program of the National Council for Behavioral Health. In 2008, the Bert Nash Center was one of seven pilot sites to start training community members in Mental Health First Aid. Since then, more than 1,800 people in Douglas County have received the training, including law enforcement, first responders, clergy and University of Kansas faculty and staff.

“One of the career lessons that I learned is that we can sit here at Bert Nash and wait for a long tie for people to show up. And some people will show up, but the fact is that we’re missing a lot of people if we just wait for them to come to the Center,” Johnson said. “So when I heard about Mental Health First Aid and what it did — giving people the tools that they need to respond when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis — it struck me that here is an opportunity to have people in the community do the outreach to get people the help they need. Whether they come to Bert Nash or go someplace else, the goal is to connect people with the care they need.”

Currently, Bert Nash has six certified trainers in Mental Health First Aid and Mental Health First Aid for people who work with youth. The challenge is all of the staff certified to teach the course are doing it on top of their fulltime responsibilities at the Center. This can significantly limit the options when it comes to scheduling public classes and having instructors available to teach private classes.

“One of the challenges that I’ve faced in my 38 years as a mental health administrator is how do you sustain good things, like Mental Health First Aid, because there are constant challenges to funding,” Johnson said. “When our state funding was cut by $1 million last year, we had to reduce our course offerings by half because we didn’t have the staff do it, because they all had fulltime jobs. But with this endowment we will have a vehicle to keep this vital public education program going. It will mean that this position and service will continue, despite variances in state funding.”

That’s Dave’s Dream. And his legacy.

“It’s not my concern that we will ever outgrow the need for this training,” Johnson said. “There will always be a need. The thing is that people use the skills they learn. It’s not a tool that rusts in the toolbox. It’s one that people take out and use. And, bottom line, it saves lives.”

To make a contribution to Dave’s Dream, send your gift to: Attn: Development Office, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, 200 Maine St., Suite A, Lawrence, KS 66044 or make a secure donation online at bertnash.org/donate.

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