Being a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Instructor fits perfectly with where I’m at personally and professionally. Working in the largest psychiatric hospital in Texas – with a staff of more than 900 – I see how many people really, truly care about other people, but don’t know what else they can do on top of day-to-day patient care. Thanks to MHFA, we’re establishing a staff support system where we can keep an eye on each other and take care of the caregivers.
But it’s not just about where training fits in the jigsaw puzzle of life. Mental health is more personal than that.
Mental health challenges have always had a presence in my life. It wasn’t until I was 15 that my mother finally received the help she needed for her mental illness. Her story is one of recovery: A high school drop-out and teen mom who bore the brunt of her mental illness in the stone ages of the 1970s, she went on to become a paramedic and eventually a psychiatric nurse in the very first prison in Texas entirely dedicated to inmates with mental illness.
After 15 successful years on the air in radio, I decided that the best version of myself would be as a minister. Following seminary, ordination and a few years as an associate pastor, I decided the next “best version” of me was as a missionary, so I dragged my reluctant wife to Nigeria for a few years until health issues forced us back to the U.S.
Back in the States, my wife suggested that I become a hospital chaplain – even though, at the time, I barely knew such a thing existed. She saw a convergence of things in my life, including my own lived experience, that had helped me develop a growing empathy for people in crisis. My challenges have always been mitigated by a combination of medication, good coping skills and a strong support system, but I have seen the occasional glance from a pharmacy cashier, as if to say, “This guy sure doesn’t look like he has what this medicine is meant for.” Little do they know of my daily inner struggle. I often wonder how many others are out there just like me. Over time, for good or bad, lived experience leaves an impression on you.
Each one of the many privileged – and often sacred – experiences I had as a hospital chaplain brought me closer to the latest “best version” of myself, as a psychiatric chaplain. My understanding of the often-fragile nature of our emotional and mental health had grown beyond what I ever expected it would be. Working in a psychiatric hospital brought the struggle some have with mental illness squarely back into my sights, so I sought out opportunities to both educate myself and advocate for mental health issues.
I took the Mental Health Peace Officer course as a civilian, because I wanted to see through law enforcements’ eyes the daunting task of responding to people who were actively experiencing a mental health issue. I was a TEDx speaker on the topic of “Destigmatizing Mental Illness.” I became a nationally board-certified provider of critical incident stress management and offered free debriefings to first responders and frontline hospital personnel. I was a guest speaker at several meetings of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
So when the opportunity to take Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) came up, I took it eagerly. Shortly thereafter, I had the chance to become an Instructor, and for where I was personally and professionally, it was decidedly a no-brainer.
Probably the most valuable part of MHFA training is the awareness and understanding of the signs and symptoms of mental illness. The tragic fact is that the average delay between the onset of symptoms and seeking treatment is 11 years. That absolutely breaks my heart. Had I known then what I know now, I’d have been able to get help for myself earlier. I also would have suggested help for my nephew earlier; he’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression.
I was able to teach one Adult MHFA class before the pandemic, for which I’m grateful. It was for the staff of a non-profit that offers crime victim services and disaster response. What a unique space they occupy to be able to spot people in crisis! I followed up with them, and learned that post-MHFA, the crime victim service providers feel much more comfortable with traumatized victims and feel ready to recommend other services if they see a victim (or a victim’s children) moving in a certain direction. The disaster responders (which includes accidental death, homicide and suicides in the schools in East Texas), also report a higher level of comfort going into a difficult situation where they can provide more than just the immediate ministry of presence to traumatized students, parents and faculty.
The opportunity to take, and then become an Instructor for, Youth MHFA came as well. As a former children’s pastor and youth director, I’ve seen firsthand the struggles children and teens can have with mental health. Again, it was a no-brainer. I’m finishing up my blended/virtual Youth MHFA certification, and I’ll co-teach a number of classes virtually this summer.
You don’t have to be an expert to take the MHFA class or become an MHFA Instructor. Just by being more aware of the people and situations that you’re around every day, you can be a blessing to your family, job, school, team, church or community. By watching and listening, you can pick up on signs and symptoms, and possibly get someone pointed in the direction of help. By simply being observant, you could completely change the trajectory of someone’s life. That’s what you learn in MHFA.
I consider it a tremendous privilege to be in a position to leverage my lived experience and volunteer and professional experiences. To educate, advocate — and perhaps even inspire — is an honor that fills my heart and lets me know I’m where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to do, doing what I was destined to do.
National Alliance for Mental Illness. (2020). “Mental Health Care Matters.” (Infographic). https://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/NAMI_MentalHealthCareMatters_2020_FINAL.pdf
Pointer, J. (2020, February). Destigmatizing Mental Illness [Video]. TEDxMountainViewCollege. https://www.ted.com/talks/jason_pointer_destigmatizing_mental_illness