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First aid expands to include mental health

Psycho. Mental. Bipolar. OCD. Crazy.

These are the words many teenagers use to describe people struggling with real or perceived mental health issues, according to participants in a Mental Health First Aid training session hosted last week by the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board.

The training, offered in youth and adult versions, is an eight-hour course that teaches participants to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and drug abuse—including temporary or undiagnosed mental health concerns and crises.

Last week’s training was the youth version, concentrating on how teachers and parents can identify and respond to young people’s behavior—and even teach children and teenagers to respond better to each other. The RACSB regularly offers both classes to the public, and will host them by arrangement for businesses, schools or other groups, as well.

“Teenagers don’t want any kind of label, even ‘boy,’ ‘girl,’ ” participant Erin Brallier said during a discussion of the stigma often attached to any mental health issue.

So the terms people tend to use—like “psycho”—distance people from helping others or admitting their own challenges, she said.

“And it’s not just children, either,” Brallier added. “Adults use the same terms, and have the same fears.”

If teachers, teenagers or anyone else saw someone break an arm, they likely would have some idea of how to react, even if it were just to find help. But what if, instead of an accidental injury, they saw marks of self-harm on someone’s arm? Some people don’t want to get involved at all. Others are just afraid they’ll make things worse.

Mental Health First Aid provides tools for those situations, particularly “ALGEE,” a five-step, triage-style response plan for nonprofessionals. It teaches people to assess for risk of suicide or harm; listen nonjudgmentally; give reassurance and information; encourage appropriate professional help; and encourage self-help and other support strategies.

The training breaks down and explains those steps and explores situations where they might be needed. It’s a new approach, created in Australia in 2001 and introduced in the United States in 2008 by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, according to Joan Gillis, one of the session leaders.

The training includes recognizing and responding to potential drug abuse because addiction is often connected with mental health, said Glenda Knight, who co-led the training.

“It is about obsession and behavior,” Knight told the group, made up mostly of community members.

Mental health problems appear to be on the rise, but it’s possible that society has just learned to recognize them. Problems such as opioid or alcohol abuse have existed for centuries, Knight said, but only in recent decades have substance abuse problems started to be effectively recognized and treated.

Recognition of the connection between mental health and the brain’s need for the rewards it can find in addiction—from drugs to gambling to shopping—is even more recent.

“I think people are afraid of it,” Gillis said, referring to mental health problems. “This is giving you a step-by-step method. … People will be less afraid of mental health issues.”

The training can be particularly useful for teachers because of the increasing struggles to manage behavior in classrooms, she said.

It protects both the student and the teacher, because it gives teachers consistent, professionally developed ways to respond to potential trouble signs, without forcing them to choose between ignoring a problem or venturing into professionally and emotionally dangerous territory.

“They can do one thing, and that’s take care of the crisis,” Gillis said. “Teachers are really criticized and don’t get the support they need.”

Mental Health First Aid doesn’t call on the bystander to diagnose, it just gives them a variety of tools to respond, from ways to offer help to when, how and where to go for help, Gillis said.

Outside of classrooms, she feels the youth and adult sessions can prepare parents to respond to their children’s behavior, employees to handle customers, or even a bystander in any public place to respond to a person who seems to be having a crisis.

“Like first aid, every person should take it,” Gillis said.

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