KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A mental health coalition on Wednesday announced the local expansion of an international program aimed, in part, at preventing incidents like last month’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
The Metropolitan Council of Community Mental Health Centers, a seven-agency group with members in Kansas and Missouri, unveiled a plan to train approximately 1,300 community members during the next year in a curriculum known as Mental Health First Aid.
The council has scheduled the first two trainings for February and March.
President Barack Obama endorsed Mental Health First Aid as part of the gun-control initiative he proposed last week, about a month after a gunman shot and killed 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
The program’s aim is to help people such as teachers, relatives, and members of the general public to recognize and address signs of mental illness either as they are emerging or when someone is in crisis. Supporters liken it to CPR.
“Obviously we can’t assure that we won’t have tragedies as we have in the past,” council President Tom Cranshaw said at the kickoff, held at the Simpson House in Kansas City’s Midtown. “But hopefully a community-wide effort can lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders.”
The event drew about 60 supporters, including individuals who have trained to become instructors in the program. Funding for the initiative is through a $75,000 grant from the Health Forward Foundation.
Some of the money already has been used to train 23 new mental health first aid instructors, about doubling the number now serving the metropolitan area.
First established in Australia a dozen years ago, Mental Health First Aid came to the United States in 2008, according to Jermine Alberty, who handles training for the program through the Missouri Institute of Mental Health in St. Louis.
Missouri joined other early adopters of the program to push for dissemination around the country through Mental Health First Aid USA.
The other partners are the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C.
Students participate in a 12-hour course.
They learn a five-step strategy to assist in a situation where, for example, someone is suffering a panic attack, is suicidal, or has overdosed. The strategy goes by the acronym ALGEE, which stands for:
- Assess for risk of suicide or harm
- Listen nonjudgmentally
- Give reassurance and information
- Encourage appropriate professional help
- Encourage self-help and other support strategies
Instructors earn certification through a five-day course. Instructors are typically staff from behavioral health provider organizations, local/state mental health authorities, or advocacy organizations.
According to Alberty, Missouri has more than 200 instructors who have trained approximately 6,000 people.
According to the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas, its members have trained nearly 1,700 citizens in Mental Health First Aid since 2010. As of October, according to the association, nearly two dozen centers in Kansas had staff members trained as instructors.
With some additional grant funding, the association officials said they anticipate certifying 19 new instructors this year. The centers expect to train more than 2,300 Kansans this year.
Diana Clemons said she had heard about Mental Health First Aid, but became an ardent supporter and instructor when she worked with her seriously mentally ill goddaughter.
“I believed in it, but I wasn’t passionate about it,” said Clemons, founder and chief executive of Future Leaders Outreach Network, a Kansas City, Mo.-based organization that mentors teens and adults.
The principles of Mental Health First Aid have helped her goddaughter turn her life around, Clemons said.
As a volunteer with CASA of Johnson and Wyandotte Counties Betsy Bautz said she became a Mental Health First Aider. Her primary motivation, she said, was from an incident several years ago when she felt helpless to assist two teens dealing with emotional issues.
“I think if we take anything away from the Sandy Hook tragedy,” Bautz said, “it should be that we need to educate more people about mental health so that we recognize the symptoms of mental illness earlier and help people get the treatment that they need.”
For more information about upcoming Mental Health First Aid courses in the Kansas City area, contact Beth Yoder-Stein at 913-328-4633.