Unfortunately, we live in a society that largely stigmatizes mental health. For that reason, many people do not receive the support they need. As a result, their symptoms may worsen, exacerbating even more problems.
The concept of mental health first aid refers to understanding, intervening, and treating mental health issues. Mental health first aid integrates education and resources. It is meant to be inclusive and comprehensive. Ideally, the more we can empower people to understand mental health, the more prosocial impact we can make on our communities.
What is Mental Health First Aid?
Mental health first aid helps people recognize, understand, and appropriately respond to distressing signs of mental health conditions. These conditions may include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance use disorders, and eating disorders.
Mental Health First Aid USA is a well-known program facilitated by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. The program was created in Australia in 2001. To date, this program has provided training to millions of participants. Training include extensive information about warning signs, risk factors, and other related symptoms. Certified instructors provide education and facilitate role-plays, which can help participants learn how to best provide support to those in need.
Why is Mental Health First Aid Important?
Most people have some fundamental knowledge about how to provide traditional first aid. For example, you probably know to give someone a bandage if they are bleeding. You likely recognize that it’s important to give a dehydrated person water. Similarly, you might receive training in CPR or other essential safety measures.
But mental health crises can be just as life-threatening as physical health crises. Yet, unfortunately, they don’t always receive adequate recognition.
For example, if someone has a detailed suicide plan, they need immediate support. Or, if they are actively psychotic, they might be at grave risk for harming themselves or someone else. Furthermore, panic attacks, substance intoxication, manic episodes, and severe depression all merit attention and recognition.
Mental health first aid aims to bridge some of that gap between symptoms and treatment. Unfortunately, many people wait too long to get the help they need. This type of first aid provides some immediate relief, which may be just enough to help the individual feel stabilized.
What Do You Learn as Part of Mental Health First Aid?
You will learn how to support people experiencing a mental health crisis. The goal isn’t to prevent, diagnose, or even treat the crisis. Instead, the goal is to provide compassion and support until the appropriate help arrives.
Mental health first aid consists of a 5-step action plan known as ALGEE. The main components of this plan include:
- Assessing risk.
- Respectfully listening to and supporting the individual.
- Identifying appropriate help and support.
You will learn about various crisis issues and practice intervention strategies in real-time. This practice component is crucial. After all, it’s one thing to read about what to do. It’s another thing to actually practice it.
Is Mental Health First Aid Effective?
Yes, mental health first aid is evidence-based. There is extensive research demonstrating the numerous benefits of this treatment across different countries around the world.
Mental health first aid is particularly effective among public-serving professionals. For example, research has shown that when teachers, law enforcement officers, coaches, and pharmacists receive this kind of training, they are well-positioned to help the people they work with in their everyday life.
Moreover, parents of teenagers can benefit from this training. Because mental illness can be challenging to understand, having this knowledge may help parents intervene more effectively with their children. They may also be more apt to find the treatment their child needs.
How Can You Receive The Training?
You can search for a course near you on the mental health first aid website. The courses are free, but options may be limited. You can search by your location or by a specific instructor name.
Participants in the United States currently have two training options. You can complete the adult mental health first aid course, training is available in both English and Spanish for anyone over age 18. You can also complete the youth mental health first aid course, which focuses on mental health considerations for youth ages 12-17.
Many colleges and workplaces offer these trainings for their staff. If you own a company, it’s worth considering looking into for your employees.
How Do You Know If Someone Is Having a Mental Health Crisis?
Mental health crises refer to any situation where individuals are at risk of hurting themselves or someone else. Similarly, such crises affect how well an individual can take care of themselves or function in society.
Certain risk factors may trigger a mental health crisis, including:
- Increased environmental stressors.
- Starting, changing, or stopping a medication.
- Losing access to treatment.
- Abusing drugs or alcohol.
- Recent trauma.
- Relationship difficulties.
Mental health crises can become catastrophic quickly. That’s why it’s important to recognize key warning signs ahead of time. Above all, try to remember that it isn’t helpful to blame your loved one for their situation. There’s a good chance they already feel guilty, ashamed, and upset.
Some common symptoms of a mental health crisis include:
- Making frequent comments or gestures related to suicide.
- Sudden, dramatic changes.
- Increased impulsive behavior.
- Inability or unwillingness to perform daily tasks (getting dressed, bathing, getting out of bed).
- Increased mood swings.
- Isolating from loved ones or usual activities.
- Paranoia and suspicion.
Some crisis symptoms will look apparent. Others may be more covert, particularly if an individual feels embarrassed about their condition. They may work hard to present as if everything is going well, even when it’s not.
What Helps During a Crisis?
You may play a significant role in supporting a loved one through a mental health crisis. Remember that it’s okay if you don’t have all the answers. It’s also okay if you don’t know exactly what to do in a given situation. After all, you are only human.
With that in mind, here are some crucial tips to consider:
It can be frightening to see a loved one going through a challenging time. But it’s important that you try to stay level-headed and calm during this process.
If you get angry or upset, you risk making the situation worse. If they worry about how you will react, they might also avoid coming to you in the future.
Avoid Challenging or Arguing
At this moment, their reality is the truth. Therefore, it isn’t helpful to try to challenge their psychosis or insist that they need to try a particular recommendation to feel better.
Instead, validate the emotions. Validation comes from acknowledging a situation and sharing compassion for it. You must feel so scared right now. I don’t blame you at all. I’m going to stay right here with you.
You might be able to discuss the content of the crisis later but now is not the time. If your loved one doesn’t think you’re on their side, they might become hostile, withdrawn, violent, or reckless.
Avoid Generic Platitudes
As mentioned, validating emotions and showing support for the specific situation is paramount. Focusing on these efforts will help your loved one feel understood.
With that in mind, avoid generic cliches like, you have so much to live for, or there’s no reason for you to feel that way- you have so many people who love you!
Most people with mental health issues already feel like burdens to their loved ones. And chances are, they’ve tried applying those cliches, but it hasn’t worked. Someone bringing them up again may simply trigger more agony and shame.
Practice Active Listening
Listening is a learned skill, and most people aren’t very good at it! We’re often so focused on what we want to contribute to the conversation that we don’t listen to how the other person feels.
Active listening refers to practicing mindfulness and attentiveness during conversations. When you actively listen to someone, you are entirely focused on understanding their perspective.
Active listening includes:
- Avoiding assumptions or judgments.
- Avoiding interrupting or planning what you want to say next.
- Maintaining receptive body language and strong eye contact.
- Clarifying if you don’t understand something.
- Reflecting back on what the other person said.
- Validating their experiences.
Ask How You Can Support Them
Don’t assume you inherently know what’s best in a crisis. Instead, ask them directly what they need.
If they aren’t sure, aim to provide support, compassion, and empathy. Let them know you will stay with them for as long as you need.
Of course, boundaries are still important. If their needs infringe upon your rights or make you feel uncomfortable, it’s reasonable to turn down such requests. Even if you must say no, you can always explore alternative options with them.
Reach Out to Others
Let your loved one know that it’s important that they have support during this time. However, you might not be able to provide all the guidance on your own. Moreover, putting such pressure on yourself could backfire.
Instead, let your loved one know what you are going to do just before you do it. For example, announce that you will be calling the police or notifying their spouse. Try to frame your actions as acts of love- you want to ensure they are safe, and you are taking preventive measures to achieve this goal.
Treatment for Mental Health Crises
Mental health first aid is the first response to a crisis. It is not the same as treatment. Paramedics respond to a 911 call and transport the patient to the appropriate professionals. The same can be said for mental health first aiders. They locate the right resources to support the high-risk individual.
In an acute crisis, someone may need continuous monitoring and supervision to ensure their safety. Hospitalization provides 24-hour care by psychiatrists, nurses, and therapists.
Sometimes, these episodes are voluntary (if the patient admits themselves into care). Other times, they are involuntary.
Hospitalization lengths vary based on the severity of the condition, the client’s participation in treatment, and their aftercare plans. Patients will usually receive clinical support and medication prescriptions. They must be stable before discharging.
Learn more about psychiatric hospitalizations.
Inpatient may seem similar to hospitalization because services are 24/7, but the treatment itself is generally voluntary. Treatment programs may range from several weeks to several months.
Inpatient services may be held in hospitals, nonprofit facilities, or standalone private treatment centers. Programs may be generalized or specific to different conditions, ages, or co-occurring diagnoses.
In inpatient treatment, patients meet with their treatment team regularly. This team may consist of a medical doctor, licensed therapist, case manager, and other relevant mental health professionals. Patients often spend the bulk of the day attending group and individual therapy sessions.
Partial hospitalization provides extensive clinical services throughout the day. However, patients do not live at the facility. Therefore, they may still work, attend school, and take care of other life responsibilities.
Many people transition to partial hospitalization treatment after completing inpatient treatment. This stepdown of care allows patients to integrate coping skills while managing life in the real world.
These are the least restrictive forms of treatment. Patients receive outpatient therapy at least one or several times a week, but they are largely free to live their normal lives.
Some people start at this level of care. Others may transition to it after completing a higher level of care.
Keep in mind that many people receive outpatient services for years. Ongoing individual or group therapy can help individuals recognize triggers, cope with stressors, and prevent mental health crises from happening altogether. Furthermore, adhering to a medication plan often augments the benefits of such clinical services.
Mental health crises can be scary and confusing for everyone involved. Mental health first aid aims to reduce some of the emotional intensity by providing action-based solutions for support. Getting trained in this specialty can help you feel more empowered to help others.