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Jeffco collaborative promoting mental health training

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By Deborah Swearingen

A collaborative group is working to destigmatize mental health in Jefferson County by promoting and coordinating a countywide expansion of Mental Health First Aid.

The program, which is similar to CPR, trains the everyday person how to identify when someone is in crisis and then coaches the person through what to say and how to help with the intention of connecting the person to professional resources.

“You’re not training folks to be counselors per se,” said Stephanie Schiemann, director of marketing and public relations for the Jefferson Center for Mental Health. “You’re really training folks just to ask the question and be comfortable asking the question when you think someone is struggling.”

Funded by a Community First grant, the Jefferson Center is leading the push for Mental Health First Aid training. The training applies to mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, as well as substance abuse conditions.

Law enforcement agencies, schools, human service organizations and more are encouraged to provide training for employees. In this particular collaboration, Jeffco Public Schools, Jeffco Public Health, the West Chamber of Commerce, Jeffco Public Libraries and others have joined forces in an effort to saturate the county.

“It’s really a great opportunity to take this thing that has sort of been a passion for (the Jefferson Center) and realize that it really is a shared passion for the Jefferson County community and how much these folks really care and are invested in mental health,” Schiemann said.

Approximately one in five adults in the United States experience mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Many times, though, those with a mental illness are afraid to ask for help or unsure of where to go.

That’s exactly why entities like Jeffco Public Schools have started requiring the Mental Health First Aid training for every licensed teacher, said Jason Firestone, manager of Jeffco’s student engagement office.

“They’re in a classroom full of kids all day long,” he said. “(We) felt like it was important to help equip teachers with the skills they need to help support kids in their classroom.”

The eight-hour training is very hands-on, often working to recreate the experience of mental illness, and it helps to create empathy. For example, Firestone said, in one exercise, a participant will pretend to be a student in class while two others talk to them – one in each ear – mimicking what it might be like for those with conditions that cause them to hear voices.

The training also prepares teachers to ask the tough questions. Teachers learn to ask students if they’re considering suicide or if they have a plan or a system of support.

“For most adults, that’s a really hard thing to be able to do so it gives you times to practice that, knowing that in the moment, if you see a kid in crisis, you really have a duty to ask some of those tough questions,” he said.

In Schiemann’s experience, this exercise is invaluable.

“Just practicing asking that question is so powerful,” she said. “I mean, the first time that you say it, I think it feels really awkward and uncomfortable and maybe intrusive.

“But once you say it, it sort of takes the anxiety out of it.”

The Jefferson Center has trained the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office in Mental Health First Aid, and Schiemann said law enforcement agencies often find a real benefit in encouraging training for all officers.

This is something Chief Don Wick of the Arvada Police Department sees on a daily basis. His department sees approximately three to four calls a day dealing with mental health or substance abuse issues.

For Wick, it’s important to increase community awareness. Although mental health has always been an issue, people have only recently begun talking about it.

“It’s really important for people in our community to understand that mental health is a real issue that impacts all kinds of people through all walks of life and all socioeconomic positions,” he said. “The more knowledgeable we all are about it, the better opportunity we have to make progress in addressing the issue.”

To sign up for a training course, visit www.mhfajeffco.org.

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042. Follow her on Twitter @djswearingen.