What we say and do in response to the signs and symptoms of a mental health or substance use challenge can have a tremendous impact on the perceptions, actions and outcomes of all involved. That’s really true for public safety officers!
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) focuses on identifying and responding to the early signs and symptoms of a challenge. After all, the earlier we can intervene, the better. MHFA for Public Safety, a community-centered MHFA course, is tailored to the unique experiences of sworn and nonsworn personnel employed in federal, state, local or tribal agencies.
That education can have a crucial impact on how law officers and staff react during pivotal moments during and after an incident involving someone’s mental wellbeing. That’s important: Those essential, initial actions may very well avert far more serious outcomes, including trouble with the law.
Just as important, the course provides guidance on how to continue to offer support days, weeks or even months later. Many times, MHFA is not a “one-and-done” process.
That’s because there are a lot of different levels to the help that’s needed! While one person’s mental health challenge might result from a situation, like a robbery or house fire, another’s might stem from a lifetime of events and trauma. You just don’t know.
You also don’t know how they’re experiencing their symptoms. Oftentimes people hide, ignore or dismiss their symptoms. Or they may delay, refuse or never seek help. Their willingness — and readiness — to get help can take time.
First Aiders should be patient and gently persistent as the person they are supporting navigates what is happening, explores why it’s happening and weighs the often unfamiliar options for care. This processing may include their feelings about profound and frightening signs, as well as real worries concerning mental illness stigma. Both can cause them to pause their search for help.
And remember: Signs and symptoms may not appear immediately following an event, and when they do, their severity can ebb and flow.
As we consider all the reasons why people may not seek or welcome help, we can imagine the opportunities for a follow-up and the value of reapplying the MHFA Action Plan.
As a former, now retired police officer, I can attest to the countless times and various types of follow-ups performed by members of the public safety community: investigations, hazard mitigation, community complaints, victim notification, etc. and allocate significant resources to accomplish this important function. Many leaders do understand the benefits of mental health interaction follow-ups as well, and they have invested in providing continued community mental health support, often in collaboration with mental health and substance use care practitioners.
One of the investments? Increasingly, it’s training their staff in MHFA for Public Safety. The agencies are bringing MHFA in as part of their overall pledge to address ongoing community mental health needs. In fact, the Bureau of Justice Assistance National Training and Technical Assistance Center (BJA NTTAC) recently started a new initiative to offer MHFA for Public Safety and MHFA Public Safety Essentials training to public safety personnel, nationwide. This commitment allows their agencies to #BeTheDifference now and later.
Public safety officers offer initial help, but they can also reconnect to “offer consistent emotional support” or “provide practical help” and practice all the steps of the 5-Step MHFA Action Plan (ALGEE): Assess and assist, Listen nonjudgmentally, Give reassurance and information, Encourage appropriate professional help, Encourage self-help and other support strategies.
Applying the MHFA Action Plan throughout a person’s mental health journey creates opportunities for many of the following helpful possibilities and associated action steps to occur:
As I said earlier, I’m a retired police captain. I also live with a mental health challenge and sought treatment while active on the police force. From my experience, I can tell you just how meaningful it was to have people who cared about me — from within my department and from outside of it — and offered support beyond my initial leave for treatment.
While I was on leave, I experienced many of the concerns I’ve heard from my peers in a similar state, including worry over perception, fear of stigma, fitness-for-duty targeting and recovery likeliness. The reassurance and other MHFA functional steps applied to me offered not only hope in my recovery but also offered real testament to the usefulness and effectiveness of the follow-up.