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‘The CPR of mental health’: Mental health first aid training aims to increase education, reduce stigma

Kimberly Holm, left, and Leslie Kveene of Woodland Centers are instructors with the center’s mental health first aid training program. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — When Val Swanson took a class in mental health first aid, the lesson that hit home the most was hearing it called the CPR of mental health.

“That made an impact on me — that we should be treating this like all first aid,” said Swanson, who coordinates the chemical dependency counseling certificate program at Ridgewater College.

Local trainers have offered the course since 2010 to help raise the public’s knowledge about how to recognize and respond to mental health situations, especially before there’s a crisis.

“It’s really about education and trying to decrease some of the stigma,” said Kimberly Holm, director of the adult rehabilitation unit at Woodland Centers.

Holm and Leslie Kveene, director of the youth and adult crisis center and detox unit at Woodland Centers, are among about 20 certified mental health first aid trainers in Minnesota.

Through videos, realistic scenarios and discussion, they bring facts to an issue that’s often shrouded in misconceptions and fear.

“We do a lot of talking,” Kveene said. “We talk about anxiety and depression. We talk about suicide, psychiatric disorders, substance abuse. We talk a little bit about eating disorders. But we take it a step further — what to do, what to say.”

“This is a prevention service,” said Rick Lee, director of Woodland Centers.

With an estimated one out of five American adults affected by a mental health issue at some point in their lives, “this is ordinary,” he said. “We don’t talk about it enough.”

Holm and Kveene have taught the course to dozens of people over the past three years. They’ve led sessions in Brainerd and Alexandria as well as locally.

“We’re passionate about it,” said Kveene.

The curriculum was developed in Australia and brought to the United States in 2008 by the National Council on Behavioral Health.

Studies that examined outcomes among participants have found increased confidence in their ability to respond appropriately to someone with a mental health issue, greater likelihood of suggesting professional help, and fewer stigmatizing attitudes toward mental health.

One goals of the class is to help demystify mental health — for instance, the belief that asking someone if he or she is thinking about suicide makes them more likely to attempt suicide.

Talking to the person does not increase this risk and can in fact be the critical first step in getting help, Holm said.

But many people don’t know what to do or fear saying the wrong thing, she said. “Part of this is increasing people’s comfort level.”

The course focuses on skills to help laypeople respond effectively to mental health issues — assessing a situation, listening nonjudgmentally, offering reassurance, providing information.

Mental health first aid responders often must get professional help for someone, Holm said. “We talk about some of those resources that might be available.”

The program also aims to reduce some of the stereotypes, such as the perception that people with mental illness invariably are dangerous.

“People with mental illness are more likely to be a victim of a crime than to commit a crime,” Lee said. “That said, you can’t ignore the things that are going on in the world.”

But with a public that’s better educated about symptoms of mental illness and, more crucially, what to do, it may be possible to intervene sooner and avert a tragedy, he said. “Red flags mean something. There’s some skills training with mental health first aid but it’s also to get people more tuned in to early warning signs.”

Although anyone can benefit from completing the training, it’s especially recommended for those on the front lines of human services — clergy, educators, law enforcement, health care professionals. Many of the staff at Woodland Centers have completed the course and become certified in mental health first aid, Holm and Kveene said.

Swanson has sent some of her students to the training. Chemical dependency and mental illness often occur together, and the training helped increase her own knowledge, as well as that of her students, of mental health situations that chemical dependency professionals may encounter, Swanson said.

“This is how they might present, and you know to recognize them,” she said. “I thought it was beneficial.”

Todd Patzer, a farmer near Marietta and a Lac qui Parle County Commissioner, doesn’t often encounter mental health situations but he took the first aid course a couple of years ago after joining the Woodland Centers board of directors.

It helped him learn more about mental health and the local resources available, he said. “Am I smarter for it? Absolutely. If I come across someone who’s showing signs, I know what to look for. That was my take-away — to learn to recognize that.”

Lee calls the program “an underutilized resource.”

Even mental health providers can be hesitant to talk about what they do, he said. “We need to be fearless. The antidote to stigma is education, is knowledge. One of the great things about mental health first aid is getting out there and making it OK to talk about mental health.”

Program facts

The Woodland Centers mental health first aid training is an eight-hour course focusing on adult mental health. A youth component is also available and may be added locally at some future time. Participants who complete the training will become certified in mental health first aid.

The fee is $75 a person and covers the cost of staff time. Scholarships from Woodland Centers can be obtained to help defray the cost of attending. Class sizes are limited to 25 participants or fewer.

For more information, call Woodland Centers at 320-235-4613 or 1-800-992-1716.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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