Mental Health First Aid class offers skills, strategies to help those in need

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By Chris Ferguson

The Jefferson Center for Mental Health will offer an innovative Mental Health First Aid class, which provides community members the tools to be a first responder of another sort.

The class gives people the skills to recognize the warning signs of when someone is in a mental health crisis, said Lisa Gardner, clinical quality coordinator with the Jefferson Center for Mental Health. While the class is not designed to make someone a diagnostician, the course orients participants to signs and symptoms of mental illness. The course provides a five-step action plan with the acronym “ALGEE,” which stands for:

Assess risk for suicide or harm.

Listen non-judgmentally.

Give reassurance and information.

Encourage appropriate professional help.

Encourage self-help and other support strategies. 

Instructors break down each step to give people the skills to recognize the signs of depression or an eating disorder, for example. 

The classes will be offered from 5 to 9 p.m. May 8 and 15 at the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, 4851 Independence St. in Wheat Ridge.

“This is about learning to help neighbors and community members with responding when they notice that somebody might be developing a mental health issue or is in a mental health crisis,” Gardner said. “So that could be anyone from educators, the faith communities, or anyone working with the public. This program is targeted to anyone who is interested in community health, and that doesn’t mean you have to be professional; that can just be community members.”

Gardner said that with recent high-profile violent crimes, mental health issues are at the top of people’s minds.

“Mental health (issues) are very common,” Gardner said. “About one of every five Coloradans will have a mental health diagnosis within their lifetime.” 

The program was created in 2001 in Australia, when mental health leaders began seeing a gap in services. The program has been reworked for the needs of Americans, said Gardner. Unlike the Australian version, which was originally designed to be a 12-hour course, the U.S. version has been narrowed down to eight hours. Trainers found that participants had a hard time scheduling and sitting through 12 hours of training. 

The program covers a range of mental health issues, ranging from depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, including panic attacks and symptoms related to traumatic events, to psychosis, substance-abuse disorders and eating disorders. The classes address the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues.

“A lot of times we hear, ‘Well, I really wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what to say,’  ” she said.

The course helps community members spot warning signs and act before something dire happens.

“Fear sometimes inhibits people from getting involved, and that’s one of the main goals of this, is to give people skills and empower individuals to reach out if they notice somebody who is in need of help. It really does give them the skills and confidence to be that first responder who can link that person (in need) with professional care.”

Gardner assures that the course isn’t just a boring lecture with an instructor prattling on, but an engaging and interactive experience. The course includes discussion, role-playing and feedback. 

“Communities as strong as ours, who have been through what we have been through, really do care about one another,” Garnder said. “And this gives people the confidence with their skills to reach out to others when they need it.”