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Mental Health First Aid Benefits Social Workers and Beyond

This post was adapted from an original article by The New Social Worker, Social Workers Learn From and Raise Awareness Through Mental Health First Aid. Read the full article here.


Our Mental Health First Aid champions from across the country recently took to the media to express the value of Mental Health First Aid and how the program works in real time. Read what they have to say below!

“The certification was excellent, and it was clear our entire agency would benefit from the training,” said Renee Rawcliffe, LCSW, who works for the Salvation Army of Greater New York, with a focus on disaster response and recovery. She was certified to teach Mental Health First Aid in September 2012 and went on to be certified in Youth Mental Health First Aid the following year.

Rawcliffe continues to work with her colleague, Diane Lopez, to train the agency’s social service staff. “The goal is to train everyone who works with us, no matter if they are a housekeeper, maintenance worker or case manager,” she says.

Training everyone regardless of position is the policy of Cornerstone Montgomery, the largest provider of behavioral health services in Montgomery County, Maryland, says Whitney Reigel, LCPC, CRC, manager of Healthcare Innovations/Integrated Health.

“It’s a wonderful training, even for those who don’t provide direct service to clients,” she says. “At the very least, training makes people think about how they would respond and what they would do. For me—I hold a clinical license in counseling—it was a wonderful refresher.”

Mavis Smith is a second-year student at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work and a paralegal with the Legal Aid Society.

“My clients often are getting sued in housing court and experience depression and anxiety; they feel their back is against the wall,” she says. “I took the Mental Health First Aid training in the fall and expect it to be effective, as I have more and more clients with substance use problems.”

Home Care Partners in D.C. offers three trainings a year to maintain its instructor designation, says Marla Lahat, LCSW, executive director, who often co-trains with Mary Ellen Zook, RN.

“We do a standardized evaluation at the end of training and submit the results to Mental Health First Aid through the National Council on Behavioral Health,” says Lahat. “Plus, anecdotally, I’ve had employees mention that they used the knowledge/skills that they learned in class in dealing with clients or family members and were grateful for the training.”

There have also been offshoots of Mental Health First Aid. Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for example, offers training that lasts four rather than the requisite eight hours and draws on but isn’t the official curriculum, says Barry Stein, MSW, executive director.

“We felt that people could get overwhelmed by the eight hours,” he says. “Our goal is not to certify people but to sensitize them and create awareness, to be comfortable in dealing with the mentally ill and knowing how to handle a person who may be suicidal.”

Jack Register, LCSW, a social worker, has taken both the youth and adult Mental Health First Aid courses. A former state director of NAMI (in North Carolina), he is now the CEO and clinical director of his private practice and consulting firm. He is using Mental Health First Aid in working with families and in community trainings.

“I definitely have seen the impact of Mental Health First Aid on the help line with NAMI and with the individuals I teach in my diversity class for undergrad BSW students,” Register says. “It does have limitations in that it doesn’t cover co-occurring disorders.”

Maha Younes, Ph.D., MSW, LCSW, professor and social work program director at University of Nebraska Kearney, has been researching how many social work programs—either graduate or undergraduate—are employing Mental Health First Aid with their students. So far, the number of responses hasn’t “been thrilling.”

In contrast, she says, nursing departments are using Mental Health First Aid “a lot.” For her, it’s a “no-brainer” that all students in human service professions should be taking the course to help them identify symptoms of mental illness and learn how to intervene.

While “hundreds of thousands” of individuals are using it, the social work profession is “just beginning to realize there is such a thing as Mental Health First Aid,” Younes added. “We’re all broken in one way or another. How do you recognize it in others and in yourself?”

Social worker Dianne Mack, LCSW, is the Executive Consultant for Creative Social Solutions, a training, consulting, and clinical group specializing in agency advocacy and personal/professional development for social and human service professionals, organizations, individuals, families and communities.

She took the Mental Health First Aid training as part of the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene ThriveNY Initiative launched by the City’s First Lady Chirlane McCray, whose goal is to have some 200,000 New Yorkers certified in Mental Health First Aid.

So far, more than 50,000 New Yorkers have been certified, according to Meagan van Harte, Senior Director, Office of Community Resilience—NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

“We know that mental illness doesn’t impact only the individual and his or her family, but also society at large,” she says.  “And there are societal factors that impact mental illness.”

Mental Health First Aid trainings are scheduled regularly in all five boroughs of New York City. They’re available in English, Spanish and Mandarin, with other languages to come.

“Response to the training courses has been widely positive,” says van Harte. “It’s about changing the culture. People are having conversations about mental illness, and there’s more non-clinician awareness. This also speaks to reducing the stigma and reducing suicide.”

New York will be the first state to require mental health instruction for all grades. Recent legislation, slated to take effect in July 2018, was motivated by an increase in the percentage of young people who have reported a major depressive episode. This effort, like Mental Health First Aid, serves to educate as many people as possible about mental health and to treat mental-health education like physical-health education.

School-age children are considered particularly vulnerable, with eight percent of students nationwide having attempted suicide in the past six months, notes the Mental Health Association in New York State.

Jodi Flick, MSSW, is a clinical associate professor, Behavioral Health Springboard, University of North Carolina School of Social Work. The entire university is offering Mental Health First Aid classes to all staff and faculty—at no charge—until September 2018. This was made possible by a grant from the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration.

“Mental Health First Aid is important because all of us are more likely to encounter someone experiencing a mental health problem than someone having a heart attack,” says Flick. “But while we train everyone in CPR, very few people have any training in how to respond to someone in their life who is having a problem with depression, anxiety, substance use, psychosis or trauma.”

“We know that the earlier a person gets treatment, the less damage the problem causes to that person’s education, career, relationships, and health,” she adds. “We also know that people are more likely to recover when their community is more understanding and supportive.”

The Mental Health First Aid movement—spreading in an increasing number of countries and across the United States—is promoting knowledge about mental health among mental health/helping professionals, non-mental health professionals who may encounter mental-health issues and others in the general community.