Program teaches how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness

Program teaches how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness

As the resident director of St. John's Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois, Mary Kate Norton sees people during one of the most stressful times in their lives.

She and her staff of resident advisers try to help students adjust to a new environment, new relationships and new challenges and responsibilities, both academic and personal.

Norton keeps an eye out for students who may be struggling with the pressures of coursework, jobs and other demands; loneliness from being separated from family and friends back home; alcohol and drug use; and other problems.

Though she has both training and experience, Norton wanted to be able to better identify students as well as other adults whose stress or other factors have led to depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders. For that, she turned to the Mental Health First Aid USA program.

"It's just going to help me better serve students who are going through a difficult time," said Norton, who on March 22 received her certification, which is good for three years.

The ground-breaking and relatively new educational program was designed to train the public to identify, understand and respond to the signs of mental illness, substance use and eating disorders. It was built on the same premise as first aid for medical illnesses and injuries.

"If someone is having a medical crisis, you call 911 and then try to administer help until the EMTs arrive," said Linda Culton, who — along with Benita Gay — is a certified Mental Health Aid USA instructor in Champaign. "With Mental Health First Aid, you provide support to someone who has a mental health disorder or is having a mental health crisis and then guide them to professional help."

Culton, the supervisor of residential services at Community Elements, and Gay, the mental health agency's crisis-line coordinator, became certified Mental Health First Aid USA instructors last April. Since then, they have trained about 70 people from Champaign and Macon counties, including Norton.

Now Vermilion County officials are working to bring the program to their area.

"We have many people here who are hurting," said Dee Ann Ryan, executive director of the Vermilion County Mental Health 708 Board. She would like to see first responders, educators, the clergy, others who serve the public and people who have family members with mental illness take the training.

"I just think everyone would benefit from this type of training."

Mental Health First Aid was designed in 2001 in Australia by a husband and wife, Tony Jorm and Betty Kitchener, to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Kitchener — a nurse, who taught Red Cross first aid courses — suffered from depression. During a walk in the park, she disclosed to her husband, who conducted research in the mental health field, that her colleagues' behavior toward her made her even sadder.

"They didn't understand what she was dealing with," Gay said, adding Kitchener's depression left her unable to do her job. "With her help, her husband came up with a curriculum designed to educate the people of Canberra about mental illness and break the stigma."

In 2008, the National Council for the Community Behavioral Healthcare, the Maryland State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Missouri Department of Mental Health worked with the founders to bring the program to the United States. The program also has been replicated in Canada and other countries in Europe, Asia and Africa.

While the program is designed to help adults, there's now a program being piloted for youth, said Ken Polky, executive director of the Human Resources Center of Edgar and Clark Counties in Paris, Ill. He's a Mental Health First Aid instructor and is getting certified in the youth program.

"The youth version is not only to learn about children's issues, but to also have children take the course and provide assistance," Polky said. "They're with their peers. So a lot of times, they will know about an issue long before teachers, parents, law enforcement and the clinicians."

The comprehensive adult curriculum is presented in a 12-hour course, which Culton and Gay teach in a two-day workshop. They use PowerPoint presentations, videos, discussions, role playing and other interactive activities to provide participants with an overview of mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, substance-use disorder, bipolar disorder, eating disorder and schizophrenia — and an understanding of their prevalence and effect on a person.

Data shows that 26.2 percent of people in the U.S. — roughly one in four — have a mental health disorder in any given year.

"The general public still thinks mental health disorders are rare when, in fact, they are more common than heart disease, lung disease and cancer combined. Certain types of disorders like schizophrenia are rare. But anyone can have a mental health disorder," Culton said, adding that severe depression can be more disabling than some chronic physical illnesses.

Oftentimes, people with mental illness are ashamed because of the stigma, Culton said.

"They're afraid of what other people will think or of losing their job or getting that promotion," she said, adding that keeps them from seeking help and getting treatment. "Mental health disorders aren't character flaws or the result of bad choices. They are diagnosable illnesses, and they can be treated. And even people living with more severe disorders like schizophrenia can recover or manage their illness and lead very productive lives."

During the workshop, the instructors also introduce ALGEE. It's the name of the program's koala bear mascot, but it also refers to a five-step action plan to assess the situation and select and implement the appropriate interventions to help a person in crisis.

"You want to assess them to see if they're at risk for suicide or harm," Gay said, explaining the five steps.

"You've got to listen nonjudgmentally and let them know, 'I care about you,'" Gay continued. "Then you must give them reassurance and information; we've got all of these resources in the community to help you. Then you try to encourage them to get the appropriate professional help and encourage self-help and other support strategies that will help in their recovery."

As instructors get into more detail about specific mental health disorders, including alcohol and drug and eating disorders, they teach participants what signs to look for and what to do and not do.

"Sometimes if a person is depressed, people say, 'Just snap out of it. What do you have to be depressed about? You have a nice house, a nice family, a nice life.' But that's the wrong thing to say. In fact, it can make people feel worse," Culton said.

They also talk about the importance of asking people whether they have thoughts of suicide or even a plan.

"We try to debunk the myths that are out there," Culton said, adding that many people believe that posing that question to someone will put the idea into his or her mind or somehow condone the idea. "Oftentimes, it's a relief for people who have been having these thoughts that somebody is actually hearing them and willing to listen."

The instructors stressed that becoming certified does not make participants therapists or give them the ability to diagnose disorders.

"But it does give them the knowledge and the tools to help," Gay said, adding participants have reported they have used the training in conjunction with their work, church and community activities and with family members.

"It's a great program, and I encourage everyone to get trained," continued Gay, who along with Culton, wants to see Mental Health First Aid become as commonplace as CPR.

Five helpful steps


ALGEE is the Mental Heath First Aid five-step action plan for providing help to someone who may be in crisis:

Assess for risk of suicide or harm.

Listen nonjudgmentally.

Give reassurance and information.

Encourage appropriate professional help.

Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

Source: Mental Health First Aid USA

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