A year has come and gone. And during this holiday season, it’s hard to think of those 20 innocent children and six brave adults in Newtown, Connecticut who will never unwrap their presents, hug their families, or bake cookies again.
With heavy hearts our nation still asks why, and what can be done to prevent a tragedy like the one at Sandy Hook from happening again. We may never have all the answers but we do know that Sandy Hook — and the horror of Tucson, the pain of Aurora, and the carnage of Virginia Tech — point to what we must address as a society.
The tragedies point to the need to shatter the silence — and the myths — that condemn too many of our young people with mental illness, and their families, to isolation and despair. In the past year, mental illness has been debated and discussed as never before — in the precincts of the White House, in the halls of Congress, in the editorials of leading newspapers, and in town halls across the country. But where can we really make a difference?
Of the 1 in 5 Americans with a mental illness, nearly half of them go without care — either because they can’t afford it or more often, simply because they don’t know where to go or what to do. For instance, the first onset of severe mental illness typically occurs in the teen years — symptoms emerge slowly and can be difficult to detect without basic information on what to look for. Even when friends and family of someone who appears to be developing mental illness can tell that something is amiss, they may not know how to intervene or direct the person to proper treatment. So all too often, those in need of mental health services do not get them until it is too late. Research shows that the sooner people get help for mental health disorders, the more likely they are to have positive outcomes.
The real conversations need to be had with those who need early intervention, and with their loved ones who want to help but don’t know how. We have a simple tool. It’s called Mental Health First Aid. When someone trains in Mental Health First Aid, just like they would in regular First Aid or CPR, they learn to recognize signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses — or ADHD and other disruptive behavioral disorders in young people. They learn how to approach people with these signs and symptoms, what to say or not say to them, and where to refer them for care and support. They learn what to do in a crisis such as when someone is suicidal or experiencing psychosis or panic attacks.
Mental Health First Aid makes it OK to have the difficult conversations — it helps people open up and talk with family, friends, and coworkers. It ends the isolation and offers a path out of the despair. And Mental Health First Aid is what was described in Britain as a “radical efficiency.” It’s a low-cost, high-impact training delivered by trained and certified instructors to all interested citizens in local communities.
Since 2008, approximately 150,000 people in the U.S. have learned Mental Health First Aid. Teachers and educators, law enforcement officials, first responders, hospital staff, employers and business leaders, faith community leaders, and persons with mental illness and their families are among those who’ve taken the course. In fact, more than 40 percent of them have taken the course in just the last year, since the Sandy Hook tragedy. In Connecticut alone, approximately 2,500 have taken Mental Health First Aid, and over a third of them have trained since Sandy Hook.
In his Now Is the Time report outlining an action plan for the protection of our communities from gun violence, issued in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, President Obama called for Mental Health First Aid training to help teachers and staff help young people with mental health disorders.
But we need more. We need Mental Health First Aid to be offered in every school district and college campus, in every public safety office, and in every community across the U.S. And we need to mandate and fund this program through federal, state, and local legislation.
We have a bill in Congress — the Mental Health First Aid Act of 2013 (S. 153/H.R. 274) authorizes $20 million in grants to fund Mental Health First Aid training programs around the country. We need this bill passed. And we need every state to fund and mandate Mental Health First Aid training, as Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Texas, and Virginia have started to do.
No amount of training, or legislation, or conversations can guarantee that a Sandy Hook won’t recur, but being comfortable with openly talking about mental illness and engaging young adults and their families can increase the likelihood we may be able to help and intervene early. Let’s increase that likelihood with Mental Health First Aid.