EVERY DAY, we pick up the newspaper, turn on the TV, or listen to the radio and hear about another tragic incident that has occurred somewhere in our country involving a person in a mental health crisis. Sandy Hook is the one closest to home in many ways, and unfortunately is the one we in New Hampshire remember hearing about most clearly.
But the contribution of mental illness to overall rates of violent crime in the United States is, in fact, quite small. The reality is that most mentally ill people are not violent toward others; it is much more likely for a mentally ill person to hurt himself or herself than to hurt others. This erroneous notion that mentally ill individuals typically pose a danger to their communities only leads to a greater misunderstanding about mental illness and further stigmatization of an already vulnerable population.
Having said that, it is important for police, firefighters, and EMTs, health care providers, teachers and parents and other community members to know how to recognize a mental health problem before it happens and how to respond if it does. Mental health first aid helps people identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders before a situation becomes a crisis.
This month in Manchester, 30 individuals from all over New Hampshire participated in an intense, five-day training to become certified mental health first aid trainers who will now be able to bring these skills back to their communities. Each of the 30 new trainers will be required to teach three classes to others within the next year. The eight-hour, interactive course presents an overview of substance use disorders and mental illness; warning signs of mental health problems and risk factors; and common treatments. Participants learn a five-step plan of action covering the resources, skills and knowledge needed to help a person who is in crisis to connect with needed peer, professional, social and self-help forms of care.
Throughout the past year, West Central Behavioral Health developed a mental health first aid program for our community. We started by reaching out to local civic and business organizations to raise the funds to send our staff to the weeklong training, provided by the National Council of Behavioral Health. The Lebanon Rotary and the Sullivan County Commissioners’ fund each provided $10,000 to support this program. West Central was able to send two staff members to the training program for children in the spring and four staff to the adult program in the fall. Recently, in Manchester, we added two more staff members to our team of trainers, thanks to the collaborative efforts of the National Council, the NH Community Behavioral Health Association, and the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Our trainers have now provided the mental health first aid program to more than 100 people, including teachers, family members who are supporting loved ones, nursing home staff, and interested community members. They all reported that the two primary lessons they learned from the training were a better understanding of mental illness and a sense of empathy for people dealing with behavioral health issues. Their fears and previously held beliefs regarding people with mental illness were challenged and they completed the course feeling more prepared to intervene in a mental health crisis.
West Central and New Hampshire’s other nine community mental health centers plan to offer the mental health first aid course to thousands of New Hampshire citizens in all walks of life. You can get involved by finding an eight-hour mental health first aid course near you, or learn how to become a certified instructor and teach the course in your own community. We encourage the citizens of our state to find out more about mental illness and substance abuse disorders and learn how to support our friends, relatives and neighbors dealing with these serious medical conditions.
Suellen Griffin is the president and CEO of West Central Behavioral Health in Lebanon.