December 1, 2022
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Mental health first aid is the lifesaving you didn’t learn in school

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which is an opportunity to talk about first aid. No, not learning CPR or knowing to call 911, but first aid for mental health.

If you’re out to dinner and notice a fellow patron who appears to be choking, most of us would immediately think of doing the Heimlich maneuver, in which one stands behind a choking person and performs abdominal thrusts to dislodge whatever may be blocking a victim’s airway. But how do we know how to do that? Most likely, we were taught in school. In fact, just last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law that requires schools to provide medical first aid training to high school students.

Many of us know how to perform the Heimlich maneuver; we also have an innate ability to tell when someone may be choking. Without any training, we instinctually know that someone who cannot speak and is grasping at their own throat is most likely choking in some way. But what do we know about handling a mental health emergency? If someone is figuratively gasping for air, how do we gain the tools to recognize that they need help? Recognizing an individual’s mental health challenge or needs is at the core of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA).

MHFA teaches people to assist someone experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge or crisis. This training, which is research-based and originally used in Australia, provides the skills needed to reach out and provide initial support to someone who may be developing a mental health or substance use challenge and help connect them to the appropriate care. Ideal participants include social clubs, faith communities, employers and employees, police officers and first responders and medical staff, but could be useful for any caring community member.

The training removes the fear and hesitation many feel about starting conversations about mental health or substance use by improving understanding and providing an action plan that teaches people to identify and address a potential issue safely and responsibly. MHFA teaches:

  • Risk factors and warning signs of mental health concerns.
  • How to recognize depression, anxiety, trauma, psychosis and substance abuse.
  • A five-step action plan to help someone who is experiencing a mental health concern or is in crisis.
  • Available evidence-based professional, peer and self-help resources.

The Ferd & Gladys Alpert Jewish Family Service (Alpert JFS) first brought MHFA to Palm Beach County six years ago. Since then, the organization has enlisted over 80 trainers who have taught the program to over 6,600 community members. In 2021, Alpert JFS received a $100,000 grant from the Florida Legislature, specifically designated for MHFA, which has enabled the organization to train participants at no cost. Our goal is to bring MHFA to everyone in Palm Beach County.

Mental illness is far more common than most realize, with one in five adults suffering from mental health complications every year. The unfortunate fact is that people with mental illnesses often suffer alone. MHFA’s mission is to change this. With evidence-based programs designed specifically for adults, teens, caregivers, veterans, law enforcement, EMS personnel, school faculty and more, there is a MHFA course available for anyone looking to make a difference in their community.

While we are focusing on mental health awareness this month, let’s concentrate on ending the stigma of mental illness. Whether or not you take steps to take a mental health first aid course, please look after your friends, family members and co-workers. It’s hard for people to talk when they are suffering and sometimes a simple, “Are you OK?” is all someone needs to open up about their struggles and ask for help. That simple question is the first step in providing mental health first aid and it may save a life.

If you are interested in Alpert JFS’ MHFA program, please visit alpertjfs.org/mhfa/ or contact Cindy.Wides@alpertjfs.org.

Cindy Wides is the director of Mental Health First Aid and Community Outreach at Alpert Jewish Family Service, serving north Palm Beach County.



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