February 24, 2018
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Would you recognize if someone had a mental health emergency?

By Betsy Graves Rose, Special to the BDN

The fine OpEd about college campus violence by professors Deborah Rogers and Howard Segal that appeared recently in the BDN got me thinking about how easy it is to miss the signs of an impending or full-blown psychiatric crisis in a college-dorm atmosphere.

The authors go on to say that such “turbulent” behaviors would stand out more readily in other environments, such as a workplace, and that is certainly true. But whether you are on or off campus, recognizing that someone’s behavior may be a symptom of mental illness can be tough. Even if you think that’s what you’re seeing, an even tougher question is — what can you do about it?

Most people without training in social work or psychology — and even some with such training — might have the impulse to run the other way. I get that. It can be scary to encounter someone who’s not making sense, doesn’t look quite right and isn’t behaving appropriately. Others would like to help, but just don’t know what to do. We get used to the idea that it’s someone else’s problem, and we go on our way.

By contrast, we are usually less afraid of dealing with physical injury. If you come upon an injured person while hiking in the wilderness, you might be able to remember enough of your most recent first aid class to do something helpful. At the very least, you would know whom to call. First aid information is out there and easy to find.

Until recently, first aid of that sort has not existed for dealing with mental health emergencies. However, classes in an effective, evidence-based program, Mental Health First Aid, will soon be available in Maine, thanks to the efforts of NAMI Maine, the state office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Similar to first aid/CPR training, the goal of Mental Health First Aid is to teach participants how to help support an individual in crisis until appropriate professional help arrives.

The curriculum includes a single five-step strategy that includes assessing risk, respectfully listening to and supporting the individual in crisis, and identifying appropriate professional help and other supports. During the eight-hour training, participants are introduced to risk factors and warning signs for mental health or substance use problems; engage in experiential activities that build understanding of the impact of illness on individuals and families; and learn about evidence-supported treatment and self-help strategies.

Peer-reviewed studies on Mental Health First Aid show that in addition to building mental health literacy, the program, according to the Mental Health First Aid USA website, “reduces the social distance created by negative attitudes and perceptions of individuals with mental illnesses.”

Having more people in our state with this kind of helpful knowledge and acceptance of mental illness is a win-win situation for all of us. It may even help prevent a tragedy.

Betsy Graves Rose is the president of NAMI Bangor and can be reached at btsygrs@yahoo.com. Sophie Gabrion of NAMI Maine assisted with this OpEd. For more information or to sign up for MHFA courses, contact NAMI Maine at www.namimaine.org or call 1-800-464-5767 ext. 1 and ask for Sophie.


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