Mental Health First Aid Could Provide Needed Lifelines in the Black Community

Tiffany Hall, MFT, Contributing Writer

In the wake of several mass shooting tragedies, there has been a recent movement in the country that advocates for access to mental health care which might help identify warning signs and prevent future occurrences. Programs like Mental Health First Aid work to demystify the stigma of mental illness, and equip its participants with the skills to recognize the signs of a mental health crisis.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) was developed by Betty Kitchener and Anthony Jorm after Kitchener realized that her own family did not understand how to deal with her depression. After years of development and practice in Kitchener and Jorm’s native Australia, the program was adopted in the United States in 2008 by the National Council for Behavioral Health, and in 2013 President Obama also included Mental Health First Aid in his plan to reduce gun violence.

The program is offered in sessions by instructors who specialize in training various audiences: youth, adults, people who live and work in rural areas, veterans, and military families. The core of the program is a five-point action plan participants learn to use to prevent a crisis or help someone who is already experiencing one:

A-Assess for risk of suicide or harm

L-Listen non-judgmentally

G-Give reassurance and information

E-Encourage appropriate professional help

E-Encourage self-help and other support strategies

What the program seems to do well is educate  people who have not been formally trained as mental health professionals to understand what mental illness looks like and how to address it. Although visibility for mental illness has increased during the last few decades, stigma and lack of access to mental health care and education have left people misinformed.  Evidence-based research has shown that most participants of the MHFA program acquire more knowledge about how to recognize and deal with mental illness.

Additionally, most training sessions are a day or two long and can be found in schools, churches, and community centers. They are often low-cost or even free in some areas (though to be trained to become a MHFA Instructor, the cost is considerably much higher).  This makes it easier for people in all types of communities and income levels to access this program.

Since this program is still relatively young, further research needs to be done to examine its effectiveness. While participants and trainers report having useful knowledge, it still is not clear how often they are able to utilize these skills to intervene in a real-life mental health crisis. This may be due to lack of confidence; a few hours of training may not be sufficient for some to feel prepared to intervene in a crisis.  Transitioning from theory to practice takes just that—practice!  However, as with any skill, repetition and further training can help.

Particularly, this program can be a great way for African Americans to open up a dialogue about mental illness in our community. Historically, many of us have been skeptical about existence of mental illness, deeming it something that only white people deal with. We’ve relied on prayer and strength of character to weather the traumas we’ve dealt with individually and collectively, but there is great strength in seeking out help. Mental Health First Aid helps participants to understand that mental illness is not a character defect, but a public health issue that the community has a responsibility to address.

While MHFA is a great way to learn more about dealing with mental illness, it is not designed to be a substitute for treatment with a mental health professional.  Part of the action plan of the program urges people to seek out other supports for long-term care.

For more information about Mental Health First Aid or to find out about training in your area, visit the program’s website.