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A "First-Aid" Response to Mental Illness

A group in Connecticut met earlier this month to explore a simple question -- how to intervene if you think someone may be suffering from a mental illness. They were learning about "mental health first aid," which was developed in Australia in 2001 and has captured the attention of many in America, including President Barack Obama.

The reality is this: when someone is mentally ill, it can be tough to intervene. "Really, we don't. It's easier to not. It's easier to ignore someone who may be having a crisis," said Kate Parker Riley, who works at the Western Connecticut Area Agency on Aging, and was one of 16 people who came to a seminar on Mental Health First Aid in Waterbury in December. "We've got Band-Aids for physical issues, and now we can have some skills to have for mental health as well," she said.

ALGEE is a mnemonic for the five-step action plan students learn at the training: assess for risk of suicide, listen non-judgmentally, give reassurance, encourage appropriate professional help, and encourage self-help.

At the class, students learn how to respond to someone suffering from schizophrenia or what to do if a friend has an anxiety attack. They learn to listen non-judgmentally, assess for suicide risk, and give appropriate referral information. "I would say if someone is living, breathing, and living in the community, they are appropriate to get mental health first aid training," said Janine Sullivan-Wiley, who teaches the class. She said her students are mostly non-medical professionals -- librarians, or folks who work with the elderly. "It's anybody ... because it comes at it from a community-based standpoint not from a trained professional's standpoint," Sullivan-Wiley said. 

In the wake the shootings at Sandy Hook, President Obama called for increased mental health first aid training for teachers. Sullivan-Wiley says early intervention is important. "These are illnesses, these are disorders that nobody chose to have. Nobody wants to have. But that you as their family or their friend may be able to help and get them help earlier," she said. "There's often such a lag time between when someone experiences their first symptoms and gets treatment."

And mental health first aid has spread rapidly since it's invention in Australia in 2001. Currently, there are more 1,500 instructors across the country.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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