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Congressional Staff Learn Value of Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety

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Mental Health First Aid can help improve law enforcement officers’ responses to individuals in behavioral health crises and make communities healthier, said a panel of speakers at two Wednesday briefings on Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety. The briefings were sponsored by the National Council, with Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Mark Begich (D-AK) and Representatives Lynn Jenkins (R-KS) and Ron Barber (D-AZ).

The congressional hosts are also the lead co-sponsors of the Mental Health First Aid Act of 2013 (S. 153/H.R. 274) and were joined by leaders from law enforcement, corrections and academic organizations, in addition to mental health and substance use treatment leaders. The briefings were attended by approximately 100 congressional staff from offices in both the House and Senate.

At the briefing, Retired Sergeant James Kirk of the Tucson, AZ police department described how Mental Health First Aid training fills a gap in law enforcement officers’ training, providing real strategies for officers to use in a crisis situation, and sharing information on how to move that individual toward help.  “It’s not only a law enforcement issue, not only a behavioral issue, but it is indeed a community wide issue,” said Kirk.

His comments were echoed by Captain Joseph Coffey of the Warwick Police Department in Rhode Island, who shared the story of a local police officer who was able to use his Mental Health First Aid training to successfully defuse an encounter with a mentally distressed young man brandishing a knife. Mental Health First Aid is also helpful in correctional settings, said Michael Dooley, Director of Training Services for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. “Our personnel are in dire need for the skills taught in Mental Health First Aid for their own safety and well-being, as well as the safety and health of those in our custody and care… that this program will contribute to the safety and well-being of our officers and staff, the inmates in our care and custody, and the community at large where 90 percent of these persons will return.”

Also speaking at the briefing were several behavioral healthcare providers and national Mental Health First Aid instructors who work with law enforcement audiences. David Johnson, CEO of Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in Lawrence, Kansas (a National Council member) pointed out that “law enforcement agencies are often the de facto mental health provider for people in trouble… When more members of the public have been exposed to Mental Health First Aid, law enforcement agencies are engaged earlier and are better able to address the situation, saving lives and making our communities healthier.”

Jill Ramsey with the University of Alaska shared data on how Mental Health First Aid has resulted in a reduction in the use of emergency services, number of arrests, calls to law enforcement, and in some areas, a reduction in the incidence of suicide. Nancy Nowell of West Central Behavioral Health in Lebanon, New Hampshire added that officers trained in Mental Health First Aid have reported having a better understanding of mental illness and feeling more prepared to safely respond in a mental health crisis.

Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety Officers is an eight-hour course specially designed for police officers, first responders, corrections officers and other public safety professionals, helping them better understand mental illnesses and addictions and providing them with effective response options to deescalate incidents without compromising safety. Approximately 10,000 public safety professionals have taken the original Mental Health First Aid course.

“The National Council is proud to stand with our congressional champions in support of Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety Officers,” said National Council President and CEO Linda Rosenberg. “This innovative program offers law enforcement personnel the language and tools they need to effectively respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis.  Mental Health First Aid can help save lives and make our communities stronger, and we join together to help ensure more public safety officers can receive this valuable training.”

The National Council pioneered Mental Health First Aid in the U.S. and has trained more than 180,000 individuals to connect with youth and adults in need of mental health and addictions care in their communities. Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety Officers builds on that successful effort.

“Mental Health First Aid training teaches those on the front lines how to help individuals in crisis and direct them to proper treatment in the community,” said Senator Ayotte.  “I’ve worked across party lines in the Senate to introduce legislation to boost Mental Health First Aid, and these briefings highlight the importance of this training to those who work in schools, hospitals, and law enforcement, as well as first responders, members of veterans service organizations, and other community leaders.”

“Sadly, too many Alaskans continue to lack adequate access to mental health services and sometimes having someone who knows the signs of a mental health crisis, such as a teacher or a police officer, can make a lifesaving difference,” said Senator Begich.  “Politics has no place when it comes to providing support for those who are experiencing a mental health crisis and we must do more to support our communities. That is why I was proud to sponsor the bipartisan Mental Health First Aid Act of 2013 with Senator Ayotte.  Our bill would provide funding for training programs to help the public identify and understand the symptoms so that individuals can get the help they need.”

Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety Officers builds on the original Mental Health First Aid program, a proven training program for educators, community leaders, veterans and military families and is listed on the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices. Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety Officers incorporates the unique experiences of law enforcement personnel and first responders.

“The Mental Health First Aid Public Safety Program is about giving our law enforcement the tools they need to improve their response to people experiencing mental health crises” said Representative Barber. “Our criminal justice system is not an alternative to a strong mental health system, but too often law enforcement officers are the frontline response to a mental health crisis.”

“Today’s briefing was about raising mental health awareness and sharing with my colleagues the good work being done to create safer and healthier communities through Mental Health First Aid training programs” said Representative Jenkins. “I am extremely grateful David Johnson with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in Lawrence, Kansas could serve on the panel and share his insights on the difference Mental Health First Aid training can make for our law enforcement communities. We must continue to work to ensure all communities have the tools and knowledge needed to keep families safe and ensure that everyone has better access to mental health resources.”

Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety trainings are currently scheduled around the country. To locate trainings in your area, visit our “Find a Course” page. Mental Health First Aid USA is managed, operated and disseminated by the National Council, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Missouri Department of Mental Health.

For more information, please visit the Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety Officers page.

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