Why Mental Health First Aid?

October 17, 2018

When a loved one, coworker, friend has cancer, families and supporters rally around – they cook, clean, drive their loved ones to doctor’s appointments, and much more.  But when some is struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, or other mental conditions, family members, friends, coworkers, are not sure what to do.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) was introduced as a public education program to respond to devastating statistics that plague members of our community that are battling mental illness and substance use disorders.

On Average, there are 123 suicides a day. The numbers do not stop there. 630,000 people have died as victims of a drug overdose in the last 17 years (data from 1999-2016). Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with a mental illness.

Just as CPR helps people assist an individual having a heart attack, MHFA helps mental health first aiders assist someone experiencing a mental health or substance use-related crisis. MHFA focuses on how to apply the MHFA action plan (acronym ALGEE, which teaches the participants how to recognize, assess, and assist an individual). The steps are:

  • A – Assess for risk of suicide
  • L – Listen non-judgmentally
  • G – Give reassurance and information
  • E – Encourage appropriate professional help
  • E – Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

In Iowa’s community health centers, Patients are disproportionately impacted by suicide, drug abuse and overdoes, and mental health than another community in Iowa. Iowa health centers and staff have undertaken the responsibility to assist patients experiencing mental health crisis to overcome these statistics.

In 2015, two MHFA instructors Peggy Stecklein and Julie Backer launched MHFA trainings to rural Iowa community organizations and health centers. Using the MHFA evidence-based curriculum (2001) developed in Australia by Betty Kitchener, a health education nurse, and Tony Jorum, a mental health literacy professor, Stecklein and Backer coached heath center staff in an 8-hour training on skills needed to reach out, provide support, and connect those who are developing mental health or substance use problems to appropriate care.     

MHF Aiders learn common signs and symptoms of mental illness and common signs and symptoms of substance use. They then utilize their training to determine how to interact with a person in crisis and how to connect the person with help. Recently added to the curriculum to assist in addressing the increase of opioid overdoses is how to administer naloxone in the event of an opioid overdose. This course is extremely beneficial to front line health center staff who may be the first to interact with a patient experiencing a mental health crisis.

One component of the training is also to discuss community resources that are available for individuals which is helpful for community members and organizations that are not as familiar with mental health services as some others may be. Supportive mental health services, such as support groups, community health workers, etc. are ways to support an individual through their journey and can assist in bridging the service gaps in some areas.

Stigma associated with mental health continues to be an ongoing problem within our society.  However, awareness for mental health has grown vastly over the past 10 years

To overcome the stigma, mental health needs to be treated like any other health condition to reduce stigma, so individuals feel supported along their path to recovery. Anyone, anywhere can be the one to make a difference in the life of someone with a mental health or substance use challenge – if they know what to do and what to say. The Iowa PCA is proud to have our two trainers, Julie () and Nancy (), available to offer their expertise on this important issue and provide MHFA trainings to interested entities.  Please contact with one if you are interested in setting up a training.

If you are interested in learning more about MHFA or would like to become a certified instructor please click here.