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First aid: Not just for scraped knees

March 21, 2018 | By Mary Shinn

Broken bones send patients to the emergency room immediately, but the stigma associated with a mental health disorder often keeps patients from asking for help for a decade, according to behavioral health experts.

A national push to train more people in Mental Health First Aid is aimed at breaking down the stigma around mental health care and training as many people as possible to recognize the signs and symptoms of a disorder and to support people in crisis.

The class can “really empower each of us to feel like we have enough skills to be of help,” said Sarada Leavenworth, senior director of strategy and development with Axis Health System. “… Without that training, a lot of us can feel like we shouldn’t step in because we are not a professional.”

Mental Health First Aid isn’t designed to prepare attendees to be counselors; rather, it gives students a broad understanding of symptoms, the frequency of mental health disorders and the tools and resources available to help people in crisis.

“It significantly reduces the isolation that people can find themselves in,” Leavenworth said.

The trainings can demystify mental health and spark conversations about it in the community, Mental Health First Aid instructor Laura Schiavone said.

Simply understanding the frequency of mental health illness can help reduce stigma, said Amber Beye, Community Wellness Supervisor with Axis Health System.

For example, 20 percent of people ages 13 to 18 have mental health problems, Beye told a class hosted by Axis last week. The class focused on the mental health needs of youths and was attended mostly by professionals who work with teens.

The class spontaneously listed possible signs and symptoms of mental health disorders in alphabetical order: “Angry outbursts, body issues, crying, diet changes, fear and fighting.”

While some unpredictable behavior can be normal for teens, when it starts interfering with daily life, it may be a sign of deeper issues, Beye said.

The training covers suicide prevention and is one important tool that can be used to reduce the rate of suicide across the state, said Barb Becker, director of Mental Health First Aid Colorado.

In 2016, there were 1,156 suicides in Colorado, representing the highest number of suicide deaths ever, according to the Office of Suicide Prevention Annual Report.

La Plata County has one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the state, and that highlights the importance of training parents, community members and professionals about how to connect teens with mental health care, Beye said.

Axis also offers free first aid trainings focused on adult mental health issues across its five-county region. It provides about 10 classes per year, mostly to interested organizations, such as Fort Lewis College and Mercy Regional Medical Center, Leavenworth said.

Mental Health First Aid was brought to the U.S. from Australia by the National Council for Behavioral Health, which promotes the training. Classes have been offered in Colorado since 2008, Becker said.

Peer-reviewed studies have found people who take the class are more likely to help individuals in distress and experience better mental wellness themselves, according to the National Council for Behavioral Health.

As more people are trained and become connected with mental health resources, Becker expects behavioral health will improve across Colorado.

Mental Health First Aid Colorado expects to celebrate training 50,000 people in May, she said.

“Our goal is to get as many people trained as we possibly can,” she said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper placed more emphasis on the program statewide after the movie theater shooting in Aurora in 2012, she said.

Durango School District 9-R has offered training to staff for the last year, which has been well received, said Schiavone, the registered nurse for the district.

The district is also hosting training in April for parents and community members, she said.

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