How to Get Mental Health First Aid Certified, and Why You Should

You know CPR, but what would you do if a friend had a suicidal episode?

Last year, my friend had a panic attack in the Target parking lot. Her face swelled with anger and she smashed her phone on the pavement. I coaxed her into the car, where she cried and shook the entire ride home. I had no idea how to react; I just kept saying, “It’s going to be okay.”

I have something called a Rescuer or White Knight personality, meaning I have a compulsive, persistent need to help or save others. While I am proud of this trait, I recognize that my desire to help is powerless without the correct means. I didn’t know the best way to help my friend because I never learned how to help someone who struggles with mental health.

If she had stopped breathing, I would have known how to administer proper CPR. If she had cut her arm open, I would have known how to apply pressure to the wound and steady her breathing until the paramedics arrived. However, when someone suffers a mental health episode, the outward signs of panic are different from a physical trauma. Signs of distress may be less evident or non-existent, despite the individual feeling tremendous pain.

Fortunately, you can get Mental Health First Aid certified and learn how to assist someone experiencing a mental health-related crisis.

The National Council for Behavioral Health provides Mental Health First Aid, a public-education program designed to help individuals understand and provide support to individuals with mental health problems. According to the website, the eight-hour course “teaches you how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders.”

The course covers topics like depression, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, trauma, psychosis and substance abuse. It starts by exploring risk factors and warning signs of each diagnosis and then incorporates role-play exercises to demonstrate real dialogue in crisis situations. Every simulation is paired with the appropriate strategies for addressing and treating the incident.

The five-step action plan is a strategy that can be applied in nearly every mental health crisis situation.

First, assess for risk of suicide or harm. If someone verbally threatens to harm themselves, dramatically increases their use of alcohol or drugs or appears unusually agitated and angry, seek immediate, emergency medical help. If you think they are actively suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Always call 911 if there is any immediate physical danger.

To listen without judgement is the second step. While this may seem obvious, active listening and engagement in meaningful conversation requires patience and skill. The course teaches verbal and nonverbal skills, such as open body posture and comfortable eye contact, which you can display to ensure the person feels safe, respected and understood.

Through your conversation, reassure the person that their feelings are valid. Don’t blame symptoms on them. Encourage them to seek help through professions like psychiatrists, counselors or talk therapy. At the same time, offer self-help remedies like meditation, exercise and engaging social activities. Mental Health First Aid recommends certain remedies for certain situations.

Much like a CPR course has you practice chest compressions on a dummy, Mental Health First Aid has you demonstrate how you would intervene in a variety of situations including panic attacks, hallucinations, reactions to traumatic events and overdoses.

One in 3 first-year college students struggles with mental illness, according to 2018 research published by the American Psychological Association. With over 35 percent of university freshman reporting major depressive disorders and general anxiety disorders, it’s important to be informed and ready to take action, now more than ever before.

Despite the program’s creation in 2001, the Mental Health First Aid Certification is now gaining recognition due to the rising trend in addressing mental health concerns. Movements like the rather obvious #MentalHealthIsTrending are great for addressing the topic, but MHFA’s #BeTheDifference helps individuals recognize when someone is experiencing a crisis and teaches them how to help in a potentially life-threatening situation.

Before taking the course, understand that Mental Health First Aid is not meant to cure mental illness, only defuse potentially harmful situations until professional help is acquired.

What Else Can I Do?

Remember you’re not a medical professional — I say with the utmost respect to people reading this article who just want to help others! Your genuine concern is lovely as long as it doesn’t cloud your judgment for what’s best for the individual. Here’s what you can do.

Encourage them to be proactive in their overall health, including their physical, emotional and social well-being. If they insist on self-medicating, recommend resilience training, a program designed to teach individuals how to overcome disappointments and traumas by practicing solid mental health care.

If you think it’s time they meet with a professional, direct the individual to either a local or university-sanctioned counseling resource center. There are also a variety of online resources provided by the American Psychological Association, Mental Health America and TAO Connect designed to provide cognitive behavioral treatments, mindfulness, acceptance and commitment therapy.

There’s no amount of friendly advice that replaces professional help, so always encourage the individual to contact their doctor with their mental health concerns. The most important thing is to make them feel supported; help them know they are not alone in their struggles.

Mental Health First Aid does not replace traditional First Aid and CPR training, but in my opinion, it should be valued just as highly by the American Red Cross Association. I’ve been CPR certified since I was 15 and complete my re-certification every year, but I’ve never had to administer it. However, I’ve never been properly Mental Health First Aid certified, and I’ve witnessed countless panic attacks, traumatic episodes and even a few suicidal situations.

Mental health needs to be valued on the same level as physical health; a mental illness can be just as life-threatening as a physical injury when the right amount of trauma is induced.

Visit the Mental Health First Aid website to register for a course or become an instructor!

Tatianna Salisbury, Northern Illinois University

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Tatianna Salisbury

Northern Illinois University

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