What Is Mental Health First Aid?

C. Mitchell
C. Mitchell

Mental health first aid is a community education campaign designed to equip regular members of society to identify, understand, and provide support to persons suffering from mental illnesses. The program is based on a series of voluntary trainings and certification exercises. Participants are not able to actually treat mental illnesses or conditions, but they are trained to recognize early warning signs, as well as to counsel sufferers to seek qualified help.

An ordinary first aid course trains volunteers to recognize and treat common medical problems in crisis situations. The mental health first aid program works on the same model. As many as a quarter of the populations of most Westernized countries are believed to be suffering from some form of mental illness at any given time. While a person with a broken arm is usually in obvious pain, a person suffering from depression, for instance, is often not. Identifying various inner ailments often requires specific training, which the mental health first aid campaign is designed to implement.

There are two mail goals to mental first aid training. First is to provide community-based help to those suffering from depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, among other mental health ailments. Program participants are encouraged to qualify as instructors and pioneer new training programs and educational opportunities in their neighborhoods and towns.

Equally important is the goal of reducing the stigma that so often attaches to mental illness. As more people become aware of the reality and severity of commonly diagnosed mental conditions, the easier it will be to discuss those conditions in the public sphere. The hope of the program pioneers is that raising awareness will lift some of the taboo. This should make it easier for those who are suffering to openly seek help.

The mental health first aid program began in Australia in 2001 as a training program for community workers, particularly police, nurses and other medical personnel, and teachers. It soon expanded to include all interested parties. The program has taken seed internationally, with sister campaigns on-going in both the United States and Canada, as well as in many Western European countries.

What any given mental health first aid training course entails varies by program and location, but is usually comprised of a several weeks-long course. Classes are usually held one or two nights a week, and students learn everything from what mental illnesses are in a broad sense to how to identify people who might be in crisis. Participants usually learn from a variety of media, including film, reading, testimony, and role-play, and they typically have the option to certify as course instructors at the end.

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