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Community Impact: How MHFA Instructors Are Making a Difference in Tennessee

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA)’s fast growth — building on the more than 3 million people trained across the U.S. — wouldn’t be possible without its dedicated Instructors, like Johnny Smith. A retired first responder, Smith became certified as an Instructor in 2022, teaching 12 courses since. With his passion for the program and strong belief in mental health education, he continues to inspire his community.

Smith was working as a school resource officer when he took Youth MHFA and experienced a turning point in his career. Gaining knowledge on how to respond to youth mental health and substance use challenges helped him better engage with and help students. Inspired by this training, Smith joined the Tennessee Department of Health’s (TDH) MHFA program, eager to share his knowledge and support his community.

In his current role as MHFA Program Manager and Coordinator at TDH, Smith plays an important role in the grant-funded statewide initiative. He communicates program information, resolves issues and actively engages in community outreach. His efforts ensure that nearly 200 Instructors across the state have the support they need to succeed.

Smith’s experience as a retired first responder has profoundly shaped his approach to MHFA. Reflecting on his training, he said, “Learning MHFA as a first responder helped me understand that many of the individuals I served were experiencing mental health or substance use challenges, not simply being difficult. The MHFA community-specific course for first responders [MHFA for Fire/EMS] helped me recognize the importance of identifying our own areas of struggle and learning to care for ourselves.”

One of Smith’s most memorable moments came while teaching a group of nursing students. A student shared artwork depicting her own mental health journey, providing a powerful example of the impact of telling one’s story through art. Even after retiring from his previous career, Smith remains driven by his passion for helping others. He believes that mental health education is crucial to breaking the stigma surrounding mental health, and that MHFA provides essential training in this area.

The Key to Success in Tennessee

In just over a year, TDH has certified more than 200 MHFA Instructors from diverse fields, including public health, health care, education, and first responder (law enforcement, fire, EMS, forestry). During the same period, more than 1,700 Tennesseans have been trained in MHFA, with numbers continuing to rise.

When asked about the success of Tennessee’s MHFA program, Smith emphasized the power of word of mouth. “Once individuals are trained, they recognize the skills they learn can help in both their professional and personal lives, and then they are passionate about promoting the training to others,” he said. He also credited the dedicated staff at TDH for their pivotal role in supporting the program’s growth.

Smith shared a particular heartening example of the program’s impact. “One of our Instructors had a student apply their new MHFA skills just two days after training to help someone experiencing a mental health challenge. This training immediately impacts how we engage with others who may be struggling,” he said.

Additionally, one of Smith’s biggest takeaways from the MHFA program has been prioritizing his own self-care while supporting others. “Self-care was never something I thought about or prioritized until I received MHFA training, and it’s been life changing,” he said. “Being in a work environment now with management that encourages me to prioritize my self-care has also made a huge difference in my life.”

It is these stories of helping others and focusing on self-care that demonstrate the need for MHFA training and inspire Smith to continue contributing to this important work.

Johnny pictured at NatCon in St. Louis alongside MHFA Coordinator, Tiah Grimes.

Johnny pictured at NatCon in St. Louis alongside MHFA Coordinator, Tiah Grimes.

For those considering becoming a MHFA Instructor, Smith offered several insights. First, a passion for the subject matter is essential. He also noted the importance of identifying a receptive audience to teach before getting certified as it will help in meeting teaching requirements for certification. For both Instructors and Coordinators, Smith emphasized allocating time to answer questions and troubleshoot issues with Instructors or learners, leveraging real-time screen-sharing for effective support. Lastly, he shared, it is crucial for Coordinators to review and communicate MHFA updates to the Instructors they support. “Great information is routinely shared by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing,” he said.

Smith’s dedication and hard work are making a significant impact on mental health education in Tennessee. If you’re interested in making a difference in your community, consider becoming an Instructor. Join one of our upcoming webinars to learn how to get started. Together, we can #BeTheDifference by training 1 in 15 people to address mental health and substance use challenges.

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