'Mental Health First Aid makes a big impact. It saves lives.'

The Mental Health First Aid training Doug Stephens received gave him the knowledge and confidence to act.

The Mental Health First Aid training Doug Stephens received gave him the knowledge and confidence to act. by Jeff Burkhead

Note: Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center will observe Mental Health Awareness Month in May with stories of hope and recovery.

Just like CPR training helps a layperson with no medical training learn life-saving skills, Mental Health First Aid helps a person with no clinical background know how to intervene when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, such as contemplating suicide.

That’s what Doug Stephens, a longtime Lawrence businessman, had to do when a friend who was distraught came to see him.

The Mental Health First Aid training Stephens received gave him the knowledge and confidence to act, including asking the hard questions. Was the man thinking about killing himself? Did he have a plan?

“Mental Health First Aid doesn’t qualify me to do anything more than to step out of my comfort zone and ask the tough questions we don’t always feel comfortable in asking to people who are hurting, and to encourage them to get the help that we know is there,” Stephens said. “I encourage everyone to get this training.”

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) for adults and Youth MHFA are eight-hour training courses offered through Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. The courses are designed to give individuals the skills they need to help someone who may be experiencing a mental health crisis or developing a mental health problem.

Since 2008, when Bert Nash was one of seven pilot sites across the country chosen to provide Mental Health First Aid training, more than 1,800 Douglas County residents have been trained. Bert Nash’s certified instructors in Mental Health First Aid have trained, for example, church staff, law enforcement personnel, University of Kansas faculty and staff, and Leadership Lawrence classes. Nationwide, as of 2016, there have been more than 550,000 people trained in Mental Health First Aid.

LaRisa Chambers, a senior development director for KU Endowment, received Mental Health First Aid training last summer through the organization’s wellness program. She used the training she received almost immediately after taking the course.

“It was really valuable for me to take Mental Health First Aid because I used it two days later,” Chambers said. “My sister had a friend who was having a panic attack. My sister knew I had gone through similar issues and asked me if I would talk to her and, of course, I said yes and slipped into my Mental Health First Aid mode and used what I learned to help this person get through it. I can think of two or three other times where I’ve used the information I’ve learned to help someone. As recently as two weeks ago, I used the information I had learned through Mental Health First Aid to help someone. That’s the whole goal of it, to be able to help others. I hope more people are able to take the class.”

Ralph and Martha Gage, who are both retired, went through Mental Health First Aid training together. Since taking the class, they have carried the Mental Health First Aid five-step action-plan cards in their wallets. The cards include a memory device called ALGEE:

Assess for risk of suicide or harm. Listen nonjudgmentally. Give reassurance and information. Encourage appropriate professional help. Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

When the couple was faced with a mental health crisis involving a KU student whom they had never met, the Gages relied on their Mental Health First Aid training. Before reaching out to the student, they referred to the ALGEE action cards.

“Both of us pulled out our cards and checked to see what the steps were that we needed to do,” Ralph Gage said.

Martha Gage added, “I don’t know how we would have reacted if we hadn’t taken the Mental Health First Aid class.”

Another retired couple, Jack and Judy Wright, were faced with a similar situation when, in a period of 48 hours, Jack received phone calls from a former student and a longtime friend. Both were considering killing themselves and both had a plan how to do it.

“Both of them were in a terrible state and contemplating suicide,” Jack said.

Jack told Judy about the phone conversations. Judy first took Mental Health First Aid when she joined the Bert Nash Endowment Board and later took a refresher course. Drawing upon what she learned in the MHFA classes, Judy shared that information with Jack.

“I went back to that Mental Health First Aid training,” Judy Wright said. “I think it’s great that we are able to talk about mental illness. We have to get it out of the closet. We know that people can get help and that it can make a difference.”

Bill Beedles, the 2017 recipient of the Bert Nash Pioneer Award — given annually to a community member “whose efforts and achievements to secure accessible and comprehensive community mental health services for all Douglas County residents are exceptional and typify the progressive, caring spirit which led to the founding of the Center” — has been a longtime advocate for Mental Health First Aid training.

Beedles, a University of Kansas Business School professor and a longtime member and chairman of the Bert Nash Investment Committee, took Mental Health First Aid in 2011. It changed his life.

It could also change the life of someone he knows.

“The biggest change is I now have enough knowledge so that I have the courage to intervene if the situation is serious enough that I need to be proactive,” Beedles said.

Mental Health First Aid training starts with asking the big question.

“Could you look someone in the eye, and with compassion, ask, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself,” Beedles said. “Depending on the answer, I also have the knowledge to ask the follow-up questions to find out if the situation is serious enough that I need to be proactive and get the person the professional help they need.”

Beedles’ audio testimonial promoting Mental Health First Aid has been part of a monthly community event called Discover Bert Nash since the event’s inception in May 2012.

“That is such an impactful program,” Beedles said about Mental Health First Aid. “The fact my story is a tiny part of that is very gratifying. You talk about a program that has had a community impact. It’s been remarkable.”

Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) has championed Mental Health First Aid and mental health legislation. Her bill, the Mental Health First Aid Act, received strong bipartisan support and was eventually signed into law. In 2015, during a ceremony at the Bert Nash Center, the National Council on Behavioral Health presented Jenkins with a Behavioral Health Champion Award in recognition of her efforts to promote mental health legislation.

“Kansas has been a leader in Mental Health First Aid, which is something we should all be proud of,” Jenkins said when accepting the award. “This award really belongs to this community, because this issue touches every community I know. This is a very personal issue to me. A family member was in crisis earlier this year and got the help that was needed at the appropriate time. I will forever be grateful for those who have their eyes open to help people who are in crisis and need services. You all do great work.”

Jenkins said promoting Mental Health First Aid training was a fitting way to kick off Mental Health Awareness Month in May.

“The Bert Nash Mental Health Center is on the cutting edge of extending our mental health safety net to meet the needs of more Kansans,” Jenkins said. “The Center offers invaluable resources and has worked tirelessly to implement Mental Health First Aid training. Thanks to their efforts, those with mental health issues will be able to receive the help they need most.”

Mike Treanor of Treanor Architects believes in the value of receiving Mental Health First Aid training. He is currently enrolled in the class.

“I wish I had taken it sooner. I think the best thing about the class is you learn how common mental health issues are and how to recognize them,” Treanor said. “The class teaches people how to talk to each other in a loving and kind way and to listen nonjudgmentally and knowing the questions to ask, like are they having suicidal thoughts or do they want to hurt themselves, and how to intervene and get them help.”

Treanor’s wife, Teresa, has publicly shared her recovery story to give hope to people who may be going through a mental health issue and to let them know help is available.

“Sharing the stories helps to reduce the stigma,” Mike Treanor said. “Everybody knows somebody who has had a mental health issue. The more people know about mental health and the more people talk about it, it helps to reduce the stigma.”

Statistically, one in five people will experience a mental health illness in a given year.

“Everybody knows somebody who has had a mental health issue,” Mike Treanor said. “It could be one of your family members or somebody you know. Mental Health First Aid makes a big impact. It saves lives.”

For information about Mental Health First Aid, visit bertnash.org.

Ralph and Martha Gage went through Mental Health First Aid training together. Since taking the class, they have carried the Mental Health First Aid five-step action-plan cards in their wallets.

Ralph and Martha Gage went through Mental Health First Aid training together. Since taking the class, they have carried the Mental Health First Aid five-step action-plan cards in their wallets. by Jeff Burkhead

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