Training More Everyday People to Serve as Mental-Health First Responders

Lilo H. Stainton | March 17, 2016 | Health Care
Summit explores pain and shame too often associated with behavioral problems

mental illness
This year, more than 2 million people in New Jersey will suffer from a bout of anxiety, depression, or panic; use drugs or drink in dangerous amounts; or face some other mental-health or substance-abuse issue, according to experts. For most, it won’t be crippling. But too many will suffer alone, afraid of being stigmatized, and without the benefit of the healthcare services and social support usually available to most patients suffering from physical ailments.

Behavioral health caregivers hope a growing movement to train more members of the public to work as mental-health “first responders,” helping people who are suffering from anxiety, depression, and similar issues and connecting them with professional treatment. On Wednesday, more than 100 participants from nearly 60 community, healthcare, and other organizations gathered for the first Mental Health First Aid for New Jersey’s Partners Summit. The event, organized by the Mental Health Association of New Jersey and hosted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, kicked off a campaign to promote mental health “literacy’”and reduce the stigma associated with the disease while encouraging more people to get trained.

“There’s no shame in mental illness,” Bergen County Executive James J. Tedesco, III, told the gathering, tearfully recalling his own battle with cancer. “I had no reason to hide my illness or worry I would be judged,” he explained, “and when it comes down to it, the brain is an organ just like the lungs, the heart or any other part of the body.”

The Mental Health Association has been working on the model for several years ago and, with funding from RWJF, assembled more than a dozen groups involved with behavioral health to build on a growing grassroots effort to train responders who can help friends, family, and colleagues in emotional crisis. So far, nearly 8,000 New Jerseyans have completed the training, according to MHANJ; many of them hail from Bergen County, where Tedesco helped launch mental-health first-aid outreach last year. The coalition is now working with a range of entities — churches, college groups, local police and firefighters, parents organizations, Girl Scouts, the YMCA and more — to further expand the circle of trained responders.

“Our goal is to get as many organizations as possible engaged,” said Robert Kley, MHANJ’S vice president and chief operating officer who oversees the first-aid project. “I compare it to CPR and (medical) first aid training. It should be a normal part of life.”

The training involves an 8-hour course that teaches participants how to spot a person in a mental-health crisis and how to provide safe, appropriate support, including connecting them with professional help, if needed. It is designed for people without any medical or mental-health experience and can be tweaked to better engage different age groups or cultural communities. MHANJ is planning a networking conference for the state’s mental-health first-aid instructors — those who train responders — in April and will send several dozen of these instructors to a week-long session led by national experts this summer. In New Jersey, trained responders can also get assistance, tips, referral resources and more from a telephone hotline operated by MHANJ for the state; the hotline is also for people experiencing an emotional crisis. (Mental Health Help Line:
866-202-HELP (4357); operates 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday)

Experts said the training equips responders to address issues ranging from the minor anxiety a family member may experience around a holiday to cutting or other self-harming behavior from a depressed dorm-mate. But they stressed that volunteer responders are taught to assess without judgment, provide comfort, and get help; diagnosis and treatment is left to the professionals.

“It’s not rocket science. It’s being with someone and knowing when to call for additional help,” said Bryan Gibb, public education director with the National Council for Behavioral Health, who walked summit participants through a mini-training session. “It’s noticing skills – that’s what mental health first aiders have.”

On the national front, serious steps to build a mental-health first-aid date back to a pilot program launched in 2006, when President Barack Obama first committed $15 million annually to the training, summit organizers said. Since then, public and private programs have contributed to a growing number of trained responders: Pennsylvania trained 20,000 corrections workers; a city agency helped 10,000 citizens take the course in Philadelphia; and Aetna offers the course to all 15 million customers nationwide. (After California, Pennsylvania has most trained responders with more than 44,700, according to data provided at the summit.)

Endorsements from First Lady Michelle Obama and former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who now lives on the Jersey Shore, have built additional momentum. More than a dozen states and a growing number of foundations have invested in the work, according to National Council for Behavioral Health president and CEO Linda Rosenberg. The council is creating new materials and creating a “frequent flier” program with incentives to encourage additional trainers to sign up, she said; the goal is to engage a million responders nationwide.

Joseph Pyle, president of the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation, said the movement to expand training requires groups to leverage public, private and foundation funds and coordinate with academic and research organizations, when possible. The foundation has funded mental-health first-aid programs in Philadelphia and the rural Brandywine Valley area, where studies showed a growing level of depression but fewer patients seeking treatment.

“It’s not ‘train ten trainers and be done’,” Pyle said. “You have to be in it for the long game.”

Leaders at the New Jersey YMCA State Alliance, which represents 37 local Y’s, many with multiple sites, are among those who have embraced mental-health training, according to executive director William J. Lovett. The model aligns with RWJ and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations regarding integrated medical and mental healthcare, he noted, and fits well with the YMCA’s own mission to encourage healthy mind, body, and spirit.

Lovett challenged the events’ participants to continue to spread the word about mental-health first-aid training and encourage others to get involved. In a lunchtime presentation that closed the schedule, he likened the day’s summit to the iconic image of dropping a pebble into a still pond. “The question now is how big the ripples will be,” Lovett said, “and what it is we all do to move this issue forward.”

Disclosure: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation helps fund NJ Spotlight’s healthcare coverage.