A Different Kind of First Aid

ISO_7010_E003_-_First_aid_sign.svgWhen many think of ‘first aid,’ a visual of one person putting a bandage on another may come to mind. First aid is usually deemed appropriate when a person suffers some sort of wound. However, mental health is not associated with first aid. On the contrary, mental health is not considered a condition that can be treated in any specific moment; you cannot put a bandaid on someone’s emotions. Nevertheless, the National Council for Behavioral Health has created a mental health first aid course, in which people can learn skills such as how to react appropriately when they believe someone is adopting a mental health issue, and what to do when someone is in the midst of a mental health crisis.

It is astounding how much of the population does not know how to properly react when witnessing the manifestation of a mental health disorder, considering that 1 in 5 persons experience some degree of mental illness each year. Instead, the level of mental illness stigma is rising at an alarming rate because people distrust what they do not understand. Mental health first aid is meant to be a resource for those who have never experienced mental illness to understand the different experiences people with mental illness may have, and how to appropriately react to said experiences. It is, therefore, educating its students and combatting stigma by default.

This course is not simply about lending an ear to someone in need. Rather, it is geared toward all types of tough emotional situations. In 8 hours, its participants are taught about common mental disorders and are made to memorize acronyms for and action plan to react to someone experiencing a mental health crisis. It becomes painfully clear during the training that everyone experiences mental illness differently, and no situation will be as clear-cut as is stitching up a wound. However, the steps taught in the course can, for the most part, be applied to any situation for a short amount of time. Instructors stress that the course teaches an immediate response and is not applicable to longer-term mental health care. When someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, he or she needs assistance right away. However, longer term mental health care should be taken to the professionals.

The step-by-step reaction process is memorized through the acronym ALGEE. It stands for Assess (the situation for risk of harm,) Listen (without judgment,) Give (reassurance,) Encourage (professional help,) and Encourage (other support strategies, including self help.) Of course, not every step can be applied to every crisis, just as not every band-aid is shaped to fit every cut. However, the training stresses that the approach does not have to be in-depth to assist someone in need.

Mental health first aid was created as a program in 2001, and continues to grow. It is a resource that works toward the destigmatization of mental illness, and has the potential to help minimize the number of people who damage themselves during a mental health crisis. Hopefully, this training continues to expand and grow across the world.