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Supporting Communities in Addressing Mental Health Challenges through Mental Health First Aid

Mental health is an essential part of our overall well-being. Just like physical health, it can be impacted by various factors, including genetics, life experiences, and environmental factors. However, it’s important to remember that mental health challenges can be invisible and that there is no one-size-fits-all way they look or feel. Mental health challenges are incredibly common, affecting people of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. Yet, despite their prevalence, many individuals feel uncomfortable discussing mental health or providing support to those who may be struggling. This is where Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) becomes important.

It’s impossible to look at someone and know if they are experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis. Even people close to us, like our friends, family members, and neighbors, may be experiencing mental health challenges and we are unaware. Statistics show that mental health challenges are widespread and affect millions worldwide. The National Alliance on Mental Health reports that more than 1.4 million adults in Georgia have a mental health condition. This includes anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and many others. Mental health challenges can be triggered by various factors, including stress, trauma, loss, and major life changes, and they can impact anyone, regardless of their background or circumstances.

With mental health challenges becoming increasingly prevalent in our communities, individuals must have the skills and knowledge necessary to support themselves and others. Mental Health First Aid is not a substitute for professional medical care or therapy, but it can be a valuable resource in the early stages of a mental health crisis or challenge. The program aims to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and improve the overall mental health of communities by teaching individuals how to identify the signs and symptoms of mental health issues and provide initial support and assistance to someone in need.

Stigma refers to negative attitudes and beliefs society holds about individuals experiencing mental health challenges. Stigma is a significant barrier to mental health care. It can prevent people from seeking help or accessing the support they need. In addition, it can lead to discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization of people who are already vulnerable. Stigma is dangerous to community mental health because it can create a culture of shame and silence around mental health challenges. It can make individuals feel ashamed or embarrassed about their mental health struggles, leading them to hide their symptoms or avoid seeking help. This can result in delayed diagnosis and treatment, worsening symptoms, or even suicide.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) can help reduce stigma by increasing awareness and understanding of mental health challenges. The program emphasizes the importance of early intervention and encourages individuals to seek help when needed. By educating people about the signs and symptoms of mental health challenges, MHFA helps break down the barriers of stigma and reduce the fear and misunderstanding surrounding mental illness. It is an evidence-based training program designed to teach individuals how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental health challenges and crises. Like traditional first aid training, MHFA equips individuals with the skills and knowledge to provide initial support to those in need.

The training program typically covers various mental health topics, including anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, and psychosis. Participants learn about the risk factors and warning signs associated with each condition and how to provide emotional support, offer reassurance, and help connect the person to professional help if needed.

The curriculum includes

  • An introduction to mental health: The training begins with an overview of mental health and the different types of mental health challenges that people may experience. This will help participants understand the importance of mental health and why it’s essential to identify and respond to mental health challenges.
  • Common risk factors and warning signs: Participants learn about the risk factors and warning signs associated with different mental health challenges, including depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and psychosis. This will help participants recognize when someone may be experiencing a mental health challenge and know how to offer help and support.
  • How to approach someone in crisis: The training will cover how to approach someone in crisis, provide emotional support, and encourage the person to seek professional help. First Aiders will learn to assess the situation, communicate effectively, and offer reassurance.
  • Practice scenarios: The training includes interactive activities that allow everyone to practice responding to different mental health scenarios. This provides more confidence when helping someone who is experiencing a mental health challenge.
  • Connecting to resources: Finally, participants learn about the different resources available in the community to support individuals experiencing mental health challenges. This includes information about local mental health services, crisis hotlines, and other support organizations.

Mental Health First Aid is not just for mental health professionals. It is for anyone who wants to positively impact their community, including teachers, coaches, faith leaders, employers, and family members. What is learned in MHFA can be incorporated in different settings like workplaces, schools, and faith communities. The program is available in in-person and online formats, making it accessible to individuals and groups from all walks of life.

MHFA training is ideal for individuals who interact with others regularly, such as healthcare providers, educators, first responders, human resources professionals, faith leaders, and community members. Whether you work professionally or want to support your friends and loved ones better, MHFA training can provide you with the tools and skills. MHFA training is also suitable for individuals who may have experienced a mental health challenge themselves guiding a loved one. By taking an MHFA course, individuals can better understand mental health challenges and learn how to provide support and assistance to themselves and others.

As a part of the commitment to improving rural health outcomes, the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center offers this valuable training to rural communities across the state, free of charge. Dr. Kedrick Williams and Glenda Grant, the Center’s nationally certified Mental Health First Aid Instructors, bring a wealth of experience and expertise to this role.¬†Just in the past fourteen months, the Center provided Mental Health First Aid virtually and/or in-person to eight audiences, totaling to 88 participants across the state of Georgia. These participants span an array of different work groups, county representation, and community affiliations including Phoebe Sumter Medical Center; Healthy Families Crisp/Dooly; Southwest Georgia Community Action Council, Inc.; Sumter County High School; Union Tabernacle Baptist Church; Sumter County Family Connection; SOWEGA AHEC Scholars Program; Goodwill Industries; Helms College; BRIDGE of Columbus; Nutrien Organization’s Occupational Health Management Leadership; Mercer University School of Medicine Faculty, Student Wellness, & AIMSS Program; SOWEGA AHEC Community Paramedicine Program; Berrien County/Faith in Rural Health Program; Southwest Georgia Medical Center; and Nashville United Methodist Church.

If you want to impact mental health in your community in a positive way, consider signing up or hosting MHFA training. By becoming MHFA certified, you can help reduce stigma, promote understanding, and save lives. To schedule an MHFA training or learn more about the program, visit https://www.georgiaruralhealth.org/mental-health-first-aid/.

For access to services and immediate crisis help, call the Georgia Crisis & Access Line (GCAL) at 1-800-715-4225, available 24/7. Or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, available 24/7. Also, to learn even more about Mental Health First Aid and its founding organization, the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, visit https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/.