Mental health first aid is “CPR for the mind, not the body,” says Kat Katsanis-Semel, mental health first aid facilitator for Mental Health America of San Diego County. Katsanis-Semel led a free mental health first aid training at Point Loma which consisted of two, four hour sessions on March 13 and March 20.
There were about 15 of us at both of the trainings and after eight hours of training, we are certified for three years in mental health first aid. Along with our certificate, we also received a card with the numbers of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, local mental health crisis team, county mental health center and local support groups, counseling services and other professional help.
Originating in Australia, this mental health first aid training program was built to help with the early intervention of people with mental health problems. Katsanis-Semel centered the sessions around the acronym ALGEE which covers the steps of how to help someone who is suffering from a mental illness.
ALGEE stands for:
Assess for risk of suicide or harm
Listen non judgmentally
Give reassurance and information
Encourage appropriate professional help
Encourage self-help and other support strategies.
Throughout this program, I learned how to help people with this acronym during both non-emergency and emergency situations, and with the additional information given in the sessions. A lot of the things I learned involved changing my approach to avoid some misconceptions I had about mental health and mental illness.
Here are two of the misconceptions that Katsanis-Semel addressed in her training and the ways to accurately address them in order to help understand mental health first aid.
Mental Health Misconception: The most common mental illness is Schizophrenia.
Just because Schizophrenia may be easier to “see” with people passing through a state of psychosis when they are talking to themselves or screaming at an inanimate object on the side of the road, it doesn’t mean that it is the most common mental disorder.
In the United States, 18.1 percent of people have reported having some type of anxiety disorder according to a 2013 national study done by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This study does not include those who are incarcerated, institutionalized or who do not consider English as their primary language, so that number may be much higher.
And according to that same study, 6.8 percent of people reported having major depression disorder, 8.1 percent reported having a substance abuse disorder, but only 0.7 percent of people in the study reported having Schizophrenia.
So in reality, many more people in the U.S. have anxiety, substance abuse and depression disorders over Schizophrenia.
Mental Health Misconception: Someone who suffers a traumatic event ends up with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and cannot recover fully from the trauma.
Yes, a traumatic event can cause someone to suffer from PTSD after the event, and it may cause people to become more susceptible to later traumatic events. But some people can recover and even go through post traumatic growth which is where they not only recover from the event but come out more resilient on the other side of the trauma.
Trauma is also very individualistic so one event may affect one person more than another which can affect the PTSD recovery process for each person as well.
This training allowed me to become more aware of mental health problems and it also helped me to be aware of potential ways to help. I saw that there were many misconceptions that I had like the ones above and I learned that just being there to listen and to sit with someone through their struggles can make all the difference.