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Getting Trained In ‘Mental Health First Aid’ Could Help Save Lives

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

With enough federal funding, a mental health first aid course in the Bay Area has the potential to save lives across the country and become “what CPR is to heart attack victims.”

Since 2013, thousands of people in the San Francisco area have taken an eight-hour course that teaches people how to identify mental disorders and prevent life-threatening situations. People who take the sessions learn a five-step process that shows them how to empathize with people who are potentially suicidal, and how to encourage them to get help.

The federal government has spent more than $20 million in the last two years to make these classes available in local communities. Last fall, the California Department of Education received a $1.9 million grant for a course for teachers, principals, bus drivers, and other people who work closely with school-aged children. Proponents of the mental health first aid training say that it can prevent a tragedy similar to what unfolded at Sandy Hook in Connecticut in late 2012.

“We’ve taught more than 350,000 nationwide, and we’ll teach at least half of that in the next year,” Bryan Gibb, director of public education for the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, a national manager of the mental health first aid training program, told the San Diego Mercury News. “Our goal of teaching 3 million in five years is quite achievable, with the federal and state support that’s coming in.”

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Since the launch of the program in California, the offerings have expanded to low-income residents and those who speak Spanish, Tagalog, Samoan, and Tongan as part of an effort to dispel stigma about mental illness in immigrant communities and bridge the gap between conventional medicine and their cultural practices.

San Francisco’s mental health first aid could reverse a worrisome trend in the region. The city’s Golden Gate Bridge made headlines in 2013 when city officials announced that a record 164 people chose the tourist attraction as the place to jump to their death that year — news that prompted the construction of a safety barrier to prevent future deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 1,600 people have ended their lives on the Golden Gate Bridge.

In the United States as a whole, suicide counts among the top three leading causes of death for young people, with more than 4,600 succumbing each year. Many more youth attempt suicide, with 16 percent saying they have seriously considered it and 13 percent admitting to drafting a plan. The CDC says that risk factors for suicide include history of previous attempts, family history of suicide or mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, and easy access to lethal weapons.

A recent study found that adolescents in rural parts of the country stand twice as likely to commit suicide, due in part to the lack of local mental health clinics. “Rural America is beautiful, and many individuals live in close-knit communities. But in terms of access to services and perhaps some other factors, the cards may be stacked against them,” Cynthia Fontanella, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at Ohio State University, and lead author of the study, told PsychCetnral.

The issue is not endemic to rural areas. A Government Accountability Office report found serious coordination issues with the more than 100 federal programs ran by eight government agencies that aim to help people with mental disorders. The document particularly indicted the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, saying that it has “shown little leadership in coordinating federal efforts on behalf of those with serious mental illness.”

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That’s why, at least for the time being, awareness about mental health issues and suicide prevention efforts may require more of a grassroots strategy. Experts say that the easiest way to prevent suicide, especially if someone shows the warning signs, is personally reaching out and listening to them.

Similar community intervention programs have worked toward those goals by equipping bystanders with the information they need to help. For example, a program in Alaska raises awareness about suicide and connects participants with information they could pass on those at risk of self-harm. In New Jersey, teachers will be able to utilize skills they learned in their training to decipher signs of suicide among their students.

Mental health professionals have also taken suicide prevention to social media. In March, Facebook rolled out an online tool that allows users to reach out to their loved ones virtually and connect them with online resources after spotting the first sign of trouble. Once the concerned friend uses the app, Facebook examines the posts in question and sends the potentially suicidal user a message that gives him or her the options of reaching out to a friend, calling a suicide hotline, or looking at video messages and relaxation techniques.