Getting training in first aid for mental health
Residents taught signs to look for in dealing with subjects
Helping to educate and inform the public on ways to identify, understand and respond to signs of people experiencing a mental illness or crisis, Mental Health Association of Maryland Chief Program Officer Lea Ann Browning McNee and Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks hosted a mental health first aid seminar during a monthly “Community in the Courthouse” meeting on April 22 at the Prince George’s County District Courthouse in Upper Marlboro.
The Mental Health Association of Maryland (MHAMD), based in Lutherville, is the state’s only volunteer, nonprofit citizen’s organization that brings together consumers, families, professionals, advocates and concerned citizens for unified action in all aspects of mental health and mental illness. For the last 100 years, the organization has been dedicated to offering the latest mental health research, education and training to the community. According to the organization, MHAMD achieves this through advocacy and public policy, community education and training as well as services oversight programs.
“From a training perspective, we’re trying to kind of get outside of just the mental health field,” McNee said in an interview. “To really help people, we need to be embedded in communities. So that’s why we have training at libraries, training in public safety fields, training at the local hospital where you take your childbirth class and your diabetes management class. So why wouldn’t you take your mental health first aid class there too? Those are the types of places where we see the need. … We think that people who are exposed to trauma and people who live in communities where there is more crisis definitely need a program like Mental Health First Aid. They need this kind of training so that they can take care of one another and help one another.”
Mental Health First Aid is an eighthour national certification course that is designed to teach the layperson the skills to recognize the signs of a mental health or substance use disorder crisis, identify community resources and link individuals in need of treatment and support to the proper resources. Participants learn a five- step action plan, called ALGEE, which entails assessing for risk of suicide or harm; listening non-judgmentally; giving reassurance and information; encouraging
appropriate professional help; and encouraging self-help and other support strategies, according to MHAMD.
“When people are using substances because they have other problems, they are self-medicating,” McNee said. “There’s a lot of research now that’s coming out. We always kind of thought that the mental health problem came first. So maybe you had the depression, the anxiety or some of those symptoms or maybe the trauma, and then the substance use. And that’s true for a whole lot of people. But what we’re also finding now, as we learn more and more how our brains work, is that for a lot of people, the substances can be the risk factor to begin with.”
In her presentation, McNee explained there are two versions of the MHFA course. Core Mental Health First Aid helps adults, age of 18 and older, who may be experiencing a mental health problem or crisis. The program — available in both English and Spanish — teaches the signs and symptoms a person may experience with common mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, psychosis and substance use as well as risk factors for each. Population-specific modules are also available and intended to blend with the eight-hour MHFA program. The modules are targeted toward older adults, veterans, college students as well as for people who work in public safety, law enforcement or corrections, McNee said.
“For the core program, there are specialized modules that really address where people are in their communities. So folks who are connected to the military is one and there’s one for older adults,” McNee said. “We do a lot of training with like senior centers and assisted-living facilities with that older adults module. There’s a higher education module for community colleges and other colleges. And there’s a public safety module for police, corrections and even broader than that, all the people in the community that are responsible for [handling] crises.”
The second version, Youth Mental Health First Aid, is a course designed for adults who work with youth between the ages of 12 and 17. This program, also available in English and Spanish, teaches signs and symptoms of emerging mental health problems and how to differentiate potential problems from typical adolescent development, according to MHAMD.
“I really believe deeply that most people want to do the right thing, but they’re not sure what the right thing is,” McNee said. “We don’t want to make a situation worse. We don’t want to cause harm so we have a tendency to not even follow our own instincts. And so what [MHFA] does is it gives you skills to back up those instincts and some confidence to be able to really follow through.”
Since 2007, MHAMD has trained more than 20,000 Marylanders in MHFA; taught more than 1,200 Mental Health First Aid classes throughout Maryland to diverse audiences; developed a network of dedicated instructors who introduce the program to their local communities; and provided discounts and scholarships to keep the program accessible, according to McNee’s presentation.
For McNee, MHFA is needed because it increases knowledge and understanding, encourages people helping people, supports people getting help, decreases social dis- tance and increases mental wellness. In addition, many people are not well informed and do not know how to respond, she said.
McNee said MHAMD’s top priorities include helping kids with high needs and making sure crisis resources are available statewide, she said.
“We are just now in the process of setting up a new chapter in Prince George’s County. It’s going to focus largely on education first,” McNee said. “We’re certainly hoping to do more with the state’s attorney and we’ve been very happy to work with the [county’s] health department. That’s the reason we came to an event like this – we want to connect with people who are ready and really find those partnerships that are going to embed [MHFA] into the fabric of Prince George’s County.”
Ernest Canlas of Clinton, who serves on the Mt. Airy Estates Homeowners Association board of directors, said MHFA is something that he didn’t really pay much attention to because it’s a topic that’s foreign and out of the ordinary.
But thanks to McNee, Canlas said he believes MHAMD’s services would be beneficial for the county.
“In my perception of mental health, I had the belief the problem was due to just a brain disorder. I never really broke it down to the fact drugs and alcohol probably caused that disorder,” Canlas said in an email. “I believe that her services would be a benefit for [Prince George’s] County simply because of how it would educate people.”
Mental Health Association of Maryland Chief Program Officer Lea Ann Browning McNee speaks about the Mental Health First Aid program during Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks’ monthly “Community in the Courthouse” meeting on April 22 at the Prince George’s County District Courthouse in Upper Marlboro. Prior to joining MHAMD, McNee was the outreach and development officer for the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare where she helped lead the launch of Mental Health First Aid- USA and created new programs connecting education to policy and practice priorities.