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Story by Seaira Wainaina and Gregory Powers
Each year in the United States, one in five adults and one in six youth experience mental illness. And in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—with social isolation, job losses, financial strain, and other stressors—the need for mental health support has only increased.
Even prior to the pandemic, mental health prevention and education were top priorities for the Washtenaw County Public Safety and Mental Health Millage. That’s why millage funds were used in November 2020 to train local residents to become Mental Health First Aid instructors who can now train others in our community.
Like CPR for mental health
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a skills-based course that teaches the risk factors and warning signs for mental health and substance use concerns.
In the same way that CPR training helps a person assist someone having a heart attack, MHFA training helps a person assist someone experiencing a mental health or substance use-related crisis. The course teaches people how to help in non-crisis situations and how to get people connected with the support they need before issues escalate. It also helps combat stigma by dispelling common misconceptions of mental illness.
The program is rooted in a five-step action plan, known as ALGEE—a mnemonic that reminds trained individuals to:
Assess for risk of suicide or harm
Give reassurance and information
Encourage appropriate professional help
Encourage self-help and other support strategies
Washtenaw County’s newest instructors—a cohort of adult and youth-focused instructors—attended a three-day virtual “train the trainer” course that certified them to teach one-day informational courses to community members.
Growing from humble beginnings
Elizabeth Spring-Nichols is the program administrator of youth and family services at Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH). She’s also been a MHFA trainer since 2007 when the program first came to the United States from Australia.
As a pilot program participant, she recalls when she was only one of two local people certified to teach. However, boosted by millage funding, there’s now a new crop of instructors who can assist her with teaching the community about mental health in what she describes as “layman’s terms.”
“It really is like CPR first aid,” says Spring-Nichols, explaining that a person becomes trained to provide basic help and needs to be recertified every three years. “The training builds up their confidence to help others in their community. It’s also helping to reduce stigma, helping more people recognize what the early warning signs of mental illness look like.”
The new instructors are also helping to reach people who have been historically underrepresented, such as communities of color.
“We actually didn’t have any African American instructors before,” notes Spring-Nichols, citing the importance of mental health information coming from peers or people within a community. “Now we have a diverse group of instructors, which is so important.”
Spring-Nichols hopes that the expanded trainers will be able to reach more people, in turn, getting them connected to help earlier. “Because like with any disease or any illness,” she notes, “the sooner you get help, the less damage that's done and the easier it is to treat.”Meeting the increased needs of our youth
A particular population of interest is school-aged youth. The pandemic has placed a heavy burden on students—from school closures and remote learning, to social isolation from peers and activities—during an integral stage of their development.
In recent years, the state of Michigan approved much-needed mental health funding for local school districts under Section 31 N. However, this funding was still not enough to meet the needs of many districts—needs which have only increased since the pandemic.
Shannon Novara is a program manager with the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) who works on several mental health initiatives within the schools.
She notes that millage funds were “crucial in filling gaps and allowing programs to function,” including matching funds for the three-day training for 15 youth MHFA instructors who are all affiliated with the WISD and local school districts. The instructors have been busy providing the one-day training to fellow staff.
“The training is wonderful because it's accessible and relevant to anyone who works with young people,” says Novara. “So not just like school social workers or counselors, who already have those skills. But for teachers, paraprofessionals, and our cafeteria staff, bus drivers, and office professionals.”
“We had one participant who’s an office professional in the counseling office,” recalls Novara. “And I thought, that's so perfect because she's really on the front line when a student needs support.”
One of the new youth MHFA instructors is Celeste Gentile, a teacher consultant who works for the WISD and is also trained in the adult curriculum.
Gentile says the program allows those who have the most contact with youth—oftentimes, school employees from all backgrounds—to be aware of problems and prevent them from becoming a deeper issue.
“It’s highly valuable information for anyone,” notes Gentile, “[but] especially for educators, parents, and those who support young people in the educational setting. We can—and we should—be the first line of support for our young people.”
Gentile thinks the training has been “eye-opening” for WISD staff in terms of their own self-reflection and evaluating mental health biases they may unknowingly have. It also empowers them to speak up and act if they think a student is in need of mental health support.
“After the training, people have said how they feel so much more relaxed about approaching a young person,” says Gentile. “Or even just being able to notice something like a change in a student’s demeanor. I think that’s been the biggest impact.”
The future of MHFA in Washtenaw County
At the WISD, Novara looks forward to new types of curriculum—such as the recently introduced teen MHFA. She’s also coordinating a summer training series for staff who were unable to train during the school year.
Spring-Nichols envisions trainings being offered on a regular schedule, with a hybrid model that allows for both in-person and virtual trainings. She also hopes to see more opportunities for co-facilitation for MHFA instructors and continuing to increase the diversity of instructors.
“To have that flexibility, it allows more people to participate,” she explains. “We’re also reaching people with disabilities who may have challenges making it to in-person trainings.”
Spring-Nichols says that recent increased feelings of stress are making more people interested in learning what they can do to help others. She notes that virtual trainings have expanded the reach of the curriculum, something she believes can benefit anyone.
“A lot of times, a mental health professional isn’t around,” she says, “and people don’t really know what to do when they experience someone with a mental health need. Or they’re not comfortable and may ignore it.”
“The more we talk about this,” adds Spring-Nichols, “the more we address the stigma behind mental health and the more we’re able to guide people toward help.”
Are you interested in receiving Mental Health First Aid training? Please email [email protected] or [email protected] to learn how you can get connected to an upcoming course.