Mental Health First Aid training a valuable, free resource in WNY

Nov 13, 2019

Basic first aid training for things such as bleeding, frostbite, or cardiac arrest can save someone’s life. The same could be said for Mental Health First Aid, a program that teaches how to notice the signs and symptoms of mental illness and connect those in need to appropriate care. The Community Health Center of Buffalo offers a free eight-hour training course about once a month. As part of WBFO’s Mental Health Initiative, reporter Nick Lippa received the training and spoke with others from October’s session to hear what they got out of it.

Showing how to properly position a person on the floor.
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO News

The chances of coming across someone suffering from a mental illness is fairly high. Nearly one in five Americans experience a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year and less than half—only 41% of people with mental health illnesses utilize mental health services.

“Depression, anxiety. These are the highest disorders in our community. And maybe a family member or a friend may be dealing with that kind of disorder and you will be able to help them once you get the training,” said Sunday Lamwaka, the Program Coordinator Assistant for the Mental Health First Aid Training Program at the Community Health Center of Buffalo.

She said with mental health, a lot of people take long to get help. It could be a year. It could be decades.

“That’s why Mental Health First Aid is really important,” Lamwaka said. “Because we look at demystifying the whole topic of mental illness. So we want to reduce stigma because stigma is the reason why a lot of people don’t seek help.”

The program has come a long way since developing out of Australia in 2001. The Community Health Center has several different courses for mental health first aid, from training at schools for adults who work with youth to courses designed for veterans and law-enforcement.

Two members from this October class, Esra Mustafa and Tera McIlwain, work as clinical pharmacists at Millennium Collaborative Care. Mustafa said it’s common in their job to come across mental illnesses.

“We came to this course to understand how we could start the conversation with getting professional help and how to approach a situation if we’re ever in one,” Mustafa said.

A key component of the training is learning an action plan in how to help someone in a mental health crisis.  Its acronym is ALGEE—

  •         A- Assess for risk of suicide or harm
  •         L- Listen nonjudgmentally
  •         G- Give reassurance and information
  •         E- Encourage appropriate professional help
  •         E- Encourage self-help and other support strategies

McIlwain said it’s essential knowledge for health care professionals and caretakers, but others should consider it too.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

“I feel like it just makes me feel more comfortable with the topic. Just kind of breaking down barriers, stigmas. Just being in that environment with patients. Kind of like, warning signs, things to look for. I feel like a lot of the information I would be able to apply with my patients and maybe even outside of that one day,” McIlwain said.

That information includes dismissing common misconceptions in regards to mental health such as:

  • Mental disorders are signs of weakness or personality flaws. Ignoring the problem and utilize willpower will make the problem go away.
  • People with mental disorders are violent. (People with mental disorders are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators)
  • “Healthy” people are not affected by traumatic events.

“Cause you never know. Riding the bus, at a doctor’s office, on vacation, where this information could be valuable and be used,” McIlwain said.

During the training participants were asked to role play how they would handle a crisis situation. Deborah Richardson is one trainee who found great value in this exercise.

“Because what we want to be careful of is not to say the wrong thing. It’s very important that we know how to approach people and what to say to them. And what we can offer as far as information to help them. And I think this course provided all of that,” Richardson said.

That’s something Mustafa took away as a strength from the course as well.

“Not saying that, when someone tells you their situation, ‘I completely understand,’ or, ‘I’ve been through that.’ Not trying to say that you always understand because you probably don’t fully understand what they’re going through because everyone experiences things differently,” Mustafa said. “That was eye opening for me, because I feel like sometimes when we want to console or comfort people we say, ‘Oh we understand.’ And that may actually upset them.”

Richardson, who is also part of the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition, said this should help her at her church-- Lincoln Memorial United Methodist.

“My church is becoming more diverse. It’s in the African-American community and we generally don’t seek help. I think this opportunity affords me, as a liaison, and people coming in to my church to reach out to them,” Richardson said. “Maybe not necessarily one on one if I spot something, but overall information. To encourage people to attend these seminars and read on mental illness and support the anti-stigma coalition.”

The eight hours of training fly by. Problems covered include depression, anxiety, psychosis, substance abuse and eating disorders. Lamwaka said it’s important to confront our preconceived biases about mental health.

“Just like physical illnesses, we don’t have doctors in our communities waiting for someone to fall sick. It’s the same thing here,” Lamwaka said. “It’s the same thing here. We want to have mental health first aiders all over the community so that if you see someone who is struggling you will be able to identify that they are going through something and you’ve already learned how to initiate help. A lot of times you may see that a person needs help, but you don’t know how to approach them. You don’t know how to offer your help or where to refer them to. It’s really beneficial and a lot of people who come for the training, they learn a lot. You may think that you know a lot of things about mental illness, but once you come here we give you some of those steps in that you need to take in order to help someone.”

By becoming a Mental Health First Aider, you learn to promote recovery, help reduce distress and communicate during times of crisis. To show a person you are listening without judging. To avoid premature conclusions based on your life experiences. To help the individual better understand themselves.

A Mental Health First Aider is often the first line of support that could change a life.

The Community Health Center is offering a two day training starting this Saturday, November 16 from 9:00am to 1:00pm and ends on November 30 from 9:00am to 1:00pm. You must be present on both days to complete the training and receive certification. This training is for adults age 18 and above only.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO