Connecticut training helps first responders with ‘mental health first aid’
Updated 9:55 am, Monday, July 25, 2016
WASHINGTON — The audience of EMTs, educators, town officials and others was instructed to ask a question, a question that would make everyone uneasy.
After seconds of awkward silence, the group creaked opened their mouths and asked one another:
“Do you want to kill yourself?”
It’s something no one wants to ask a stranger, a loved one or an acquaintance, but one of those questions that need to be asked if you are concerned about someone’s mental health, Valerie English Cooper told the attendees of Washington’s first “mental health first-aid” training session.
The 25 trainees from Washington and surrounding towns were to be taught, over two four-hour sessions, what to do when the answer was “yes,” how to recognize someone in mental distress, and how to help.
It was the 11th such session held in Litchfield County since a federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant was awarded in September to West Hartford-based Mental Health Connecticut to train 2,700 Litchfield residents in mental health first aid over the next three years. Classes began being offered in April.
Although the concept of mental health first aid isn’t new — it was pioneered in Australia in 2001 and adopted in the U.S. in 2008 — it has a small foothold in Connecticut, where 9,000 people have been trained so far.
Mental health first aid checklist:
Asses for risk of suicide or harm
Give reassurance and information
Encourage appropriate professional help
Encourage self-help and other support strategies
The grant was awarded to Mental Health Connecticut to serve Litchfield County for several reasons. Among them: the substance-abuse epidemic in the county, and people ages 16 to 24 are underserved in mental health support.
So the organization was given $125,000 a year to train as many people as they can in free eight-hour courses.
To do that training, there is a team of one. Cooper. A lofty goal: Cooper is to train those 2,700 people by September 2019.
When she found out about the job, “it felt like something I had to do,” she said.
On a recent Tuesday, she was in New Milford, for four hours of training, then to Washington, her hometown, for another four.
Participants say Cooper’s work has already begun paying off.
Barbara Henry, Roxbury’s first selectman, and a part-time EMT, took the training in May. Soon after, she was on an emergency call in which a person was threatening suicide, she said.
In the back of an ambulance, the answer to Cooper’s question about suicide was “yes,” Henry said.
“You think back on some of the things that Valerie was teaching and talking about,” Henry said. “It was definitely helpful ... we had an opportunity to speak to this person, to try to calm them down, and to try to get inside their head.”
Several people who have taken the course said it has changed how they interact with people.
“There are people you meet at the grocery store, people you meet at the bank,” said Amy DeLuca, who was trained in June. “If everyone took the training, we would have kinder, gentler communities.”
Most of the training comes down to something of a change in our societal reflex to avoid the mentally unwell. We have natural response to avoid mental health issues; to distance ourselves from friends or strangers who exhibit signs of a common struggle.
Like other diseases, cancers and pains, mental health disorders are prevalent and treatable. But we treat them differently, Cooper told attendees in Washington.
Cooper referenced frightening statistics. Mental health has been the No. 1 reason for hospitalization for people aged 5 to 45 in Connecticut since 2012.
We train people to administer first aid for cuts, and we train people to administer CPR when someone ceases to breathe, Cooper told the audience of teachers, professors, emergency medical services personnel, nurses and parents in Washington. But we don’t teach people to help the mentally unwell — until now, she said.
“We don’t have to split mental and physical health,” Cooper said. “Our bodies don’t do that, so why should we?”
The course doesn’t teach people to diagnose mental health issues, Cooper said. Using mental health first aid is like someone administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation. You don’t need to know why a person isn’t breathing, you just need to know how to help.
If Cooper has her way, the people of Litchfield County will know how to help.
“When we can reach out to somebody, when we know they are struggling, we can encourage them to seek help,” Cooper told the crowd in Washington.
“Early intervention means early recovery,” she said.