Mental Health First Aid provides the needed skills for responding to mental health crises


First aid and CPR classes have been taught across the nation for years now, giving people with no medical training lifesaving skills in the event of a medical crisis. People suffering from mental health problems can pose a life-threatening crisis as well.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota offers lay people a class called Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) that will give them the skills needed to respond in cases of a mental-health crisis.

“In a similar way to how regular first aid teaches people BAC (breathing, airway and circulation), in mental health first aid there’s an acronym ALGEE. It stands for assess for risk of suicide or harm, listen non-judgmentally, get appropriate information and support, encourage appropriate professional help, and encourage appropriate self-help,” explains Anna McLafferty, the course instructor.

MHFA has been taught in the Minnesota for just a little over two years now. The concept originated in Australia, and in 2009 the National Council on Behavioral Health brought it to the U.S. It is now being offered as a 12-hour course.

The class gives students an overview of mental health problems prevalent in the U.S., the mental health first-aid action plan, and familiarizes students with ALGEE by explaining different mental-health concerns. The conversation begins with depression, since it is the most common mental-health concern, focusing on the “A” in ALGEE: Assess for suicide or harm.

“The risk of suicide is going to be elevated for anyone who lives with a mental illness,” McLafferty explains. “It kind of teaches people to recognize the signs and symptoms of when someone may be having a suicidal crisis and how to talk to people about it.” One of the best things about the class, she says, is that it gives people the opportunity to talk about somewhat taboo subjects even though mental-health problems impact one in four people in a given year.

After discussing depression, the class focuses on non-suicidal self-injury, which is also fairly common. “People don’t have a very good idea of how to respond when you see signs that someone may have done self-injury.”

Next, they discuss anxiety disorders using the “L” in ALGEE: Listen non-judgmentally. This is taught by studying the symptoms of anxiety, offering different scenarios allowing students the opportunity to determine how to assess and listen in real-life situations.

The class examines psychotic disorders, noticing the signs of someone experiencing hallucinations and/or delusions. “Not everyone is going to feel safe telling the next person that they are experiencing those things, especially if they are having some paranoia,” McLafferty explains.

With those illnesses, McLafferty says people often are unaware that they have an illness. At this point in the class, students examine the “G” in ALGEE: Give reassurance and information.

Substance use and eating disorders are also discussed during the course, unpacking the two “E”s of ALGEE: Encourage appropriate professional help. Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

Who stands to benefit most from the class? “The training is really geared toward lay people,” McLafferty explains, “like parish nurses [or] other people in a church setting [who] might be someone that other parishioners come to talk to.”

Librarians are also good candidates for the class. “Libraries tend to be a place where people go, especially during the winter, for warmth, a place to use the restroom.” The homeless population has a higher prevalence of mental illnesses than the general population.

Training can also be useful for those who work in an education setting, particularly college staff. People who will develop a mental health problem at some point in their life will begin to have symptoms at age 14 on average, and 75 percent will exhibit symptoms by age 24.

“Those college-age kids are kind of in the middle of that, [and] they are so far from home oftentimes or even just doing new things and they don’t necessarily have their regular supports right there like they have for the earlier part of their life,” McLafferty explains.

When asked if the class was in response to recent mass-shootings incidents, McLafferty, who is also the criminal justice director for NAMI Minnesota, said that she believes that the skills taught in the class should be — like CPR and first aid — more widespread, allowing lay people to acquire the skills needed to stop a situation from escalating.

In the event of a crisis, she wants people to be aware of the mental health crisis teams available in each Minnesota county. In Hennepin County that team is called COPE (Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies, 612-596-1223) and Ramsey County’s Crisis Team (651-266-7900) is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Two or more crisis team mental-health professionals come out and assess a situation and in most cases prevent the need for the person being hospitalized. “They can kind of triage the situation there and figure out next steps, and it’s a nice alternative to calling 911.”

In the event that someone does call 911 if they determine a danger exists to the person exhibiting symptoms or to others, McLafferty suggests asking for someone with crisis-intervention training (CIT), a 40-hour mental-health training where officers practice skills to prevent a situation from escalating.

“They are going to be the one with the skills to respond to someone in crisis and be less likely to jump to kind of a crime mindset that officers may sometimes have.”

Mental health first-aid classes are available approximately six times per year. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Minnesota will hold a free, two-day, 12-hour training on Feb. 25-26, 9 am to 4 pm, at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, 700 Snelling Ave. S., in St. Paul. For more information or to register, contact NAMI Minnesota at 651-645-2948.

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