Mental health first aid course trains people to spot potential crises
Say your co-worker has stopped coming to lunch with you – something he used to do every day. His office door is closed, and he’s irritable when normally he’s a big part of the team.
You should pick up on these signs, according to Denise Waligora, a training specialist with Mental Health First Aid Canada. Her organization trains people to recognize changes in behaviour and to reach out to the person involved.
Sask. farmers helping make mental health first aid training more accessible
Mental health first aid is like physical first aid, she said. You’re the first person on the scene and have to do what you can to help. “You’re providing that first line of support. You’re that person who’s noticing those changes.”
In the case above, Waligora said, the approach wouldn’t be, “What’s wrong with you?”
“It would be: ‘I’ve noticed that your office door has been closed a lot more, and you’re not coming and having lunch, and you just don’t seem to be yourself. Is there something going on?’”
Her organization, which is part of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, says it has trained more than 300,000 Canadians in mental health first aid skills since 2007. It does the training mostly in workplaces, though newer programs include partnerships with police forces like the Ontario Provincial Police.
Since the OPP’s program began in Sept. 2018, 100 OPP members, both civilian and uniformed, have taken a course specific to police needs. The OPP hopes to eventually have all of its personnel trained.
“Police interactions with persons with mental health issues continue to be a topic of concern for police, the public and the media as a result of inquests and inquiries,” said OPP staff sergeant and spokesperson Carolle Dionne in an email. “The OPP is committed to improving its response to the mental health needs of its members and the individuals they serve, in our communities.”
“According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, in any given year, one in five people in Canada experiences a mental health problem or illness. It is evident that this is a very important issue for everyone.”
What mental health first aiders learn
People who take the course learn to assess the risk of suicide or harm, listen non-judgmentally, give reassurance and encourage support – such as seeking out the help of an actual mental health professional.
“As a mental health first aider, our role is not to fix the issue because we can’t fix the issue,” Waligora said. “We are not able to provide participants with the skills to be a therapist or counsellor and we certainly in two days cannot provide participants with the skills to be able to diagnose somebody.
“It’s about getting that conversation started.”
People also learn about substance use disorders, anxiety, mood-related disorders and psychotic disorders, with the goals of recognizing the symptoms, dealing with crises and breaking down stigma associated with mental illness.
According to some research, the training helps. A recent meta-analysis of studies done on international mental health first aid programs found that participants had less stigma about mental illness, had greater knowledge about effective treatments for mental illness, more confidence in helping people, and provided more help six months after the training. However, the quality of the help provided didn’t show significant improvements – though the researchers note that there have been few studies on that subject.
Waligora said trainees respond well to the class. “What happens with participants is that they come in and it resonates with stuff that they’re going through with family and friends. They leave having a better understanding of how to have those conversations.”
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