First Aid Just as Vital For Mental Health

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2018

Lebanon — When Upper Valley residents go to the hospital for a heart attack, neighbors often bring the family food and flowers, but when they are admitted for a psychiatric condition, there often is little support from the community.

So notes Nancy Nowell, vice president of clinical services for West Central Behavioral Health, who is hoping to change societal attitudes toward mental illness. As part of that effort, Nowell and her colleagues have been providing free training in mental health first aid for the past five years. She estimates so far they have taught about 500 people how to identify risk factors and warning signs of mental illness. The eight-hour training sessions include basic information about common illnesses such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance use, suicide and non-suicidal self injury.

First developed in Australia in the early 2000s, the course now is taught in many countries, according to the website of Mental Health First Aid USA, www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org. About 1 million Americans have been trained so far.

The training gives participants an action plan for how to respond when they encounter someone in trouble. They use the acronym ALGEE, Nowell said. The ‘A’ stands for Approach, which means that people should work to start a conversation with the person who is struggling. The ‘L’ stands for Listen, which means that the support person ought to offer a sympathetic ear by listening non-judgmentally.

“It sounds so simple,” Nowell said. “But we’re really bad at it as a culture.”

The ‘G’ stands for Give information and assurance, not advice. The first ‘E’ stands for Encourage professional help. The training offers guidance on when to suggest that someone reach out to their primary care provider or guidance counselor.

The final ‘E’ stands for Encourage self help and other support strategies such as yoga or meditation.

The idea with promoting self-care options is to counter the idea “that all people can do is see a professional,” Nowell said. “There’s a lot of things people can do.”

Though the topic sounds heavy, Nowell said the training itself takes a lighter tone. The structure includes moving around, acting in role-playing games and watching videos.

“We work very hard to not let the course be too heavy and difficult,” she said.

Participants in the training sessions come away with a manual of resources, including descriptions of different mental health challenges, websites and hotlines, Nowell said.

“I like to believe that that is something that people can take away,” she said.

Marguerite Dunn, of Norwich, took the course in June with her husband Paul at the urging of their daughter Sophie, who recently graduated from Hanover High School. Sophie had participated in a modified course for high school students at Hanover High.

One exercise stuck out to Dunn as being particularly “instructive.”

Participants, who included law enforcement officers and people who work in mental health, were asked to rank a number of different illnesses based on degrees of seriousness. The list included chronic pain, gingivitis, schizophrenia and severe depression.

“The one that was ranked most extreme was severe depression,” she said.

In reading the handbook Sophie brought home after her training, Dunn said she learned that to help someone who may be having thoughts of suicide, friends and family ought to try to engage that person in a conversation about their thoughts and find out whether they have made a plan. Talking about these thoughts might help interrupt them, Dunn said.

This guidance was “not necessarily intuitive, I thought,” Dunn said.

Hartford resident Elizabeth Kelsey, who works as addiction prevention coordinator with the Hartford Community Coalition, said she is encouraged that such training now exists.

“One of the things I think is important about these classes is that mental health crises are so pervasive it makes sense to have a first aid course,” she said.

She said she felt that the training she took in June confirmed some of her instincts in reaching out to people who may be struggling, engaging with them respectfully and connecting them with appropriate services.

The detailed information about how people might best support others who are exhibiting specific symptoms gave Kelsey a “sense of confidence in providing support,” she said.

Though she declined to elaborate, citing the privacy of those involved, Kelsey said, “I’ve already been able to use some of the skills that they taught in that course.”

Upcoming free training sessions for adults over 18 will be held July 27 at Hypertherm in Lebanon, Sept. 26 at Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center in Newport and Nov. 2 at Sugar River Valley Technical Center in Claremont. All trainings will be held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Pre-registration is required. Contact Hope Duncan at 603-448-0126 ext. 2180 or hduncan@wcbh.org for more information or to register.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.