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Mental Health First Aid training teaches about resources, offers hope

People who commit high-profile acts of gun violence are often mentally ill, like Adam Lanza, James Holmes and Jared Loughner. Conversations about gun control often come with calls for improved mental health care, but while people understand the mental health care system needs to be improved, that doesn’t mean they can tell when someone actually needs help. One class teaches how to notice and respond to a mental health crisis. Imagine you’re trying to have a conversation with someone while, at the same time, hearing a voice in your head. Not that voice of conscience or internal monologue we all have.

A persistent, distracting, disturbing voice you can’t get rid of. A voice saying things like, "Why are you talking to her? Can you trust her? Notice how she’s smiling at you? Wonder what she’s thinking."

At Magellan Health Services’ recent Mental Health First Aid training course, the students found out what that might be like by having someone read threatening sentences into their ear while trying to hold a conversation. After the exercise, teacher Carlos Benjamin asked the group of about 20 how the people hearing a voice behaved during the conversation.

“What were some of the things that you noticed?" Benjamin asked.

“Trying to have eye contact, but then see that they weren’t there,” responded one student.

“Did it feel different to you than say, maybe, somebody who you were having a conversation and just was not into the conversation?" Benajmin asked.

"Totally different. They seemed like they were trying to be into the conversation, but couldn’t,” the student replied.

The Mental Health First Aid training program was developed in Australia in the early 2000s, and it’s now offered in more than a dozen countries. It came to Arizona after Jared Loughner killed six and severely wounded then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at a Tucson grocery store in January 2011.

Magellan is just one of the places around the state that offers the class. It teaches students about the most common mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, psychotic disorders, substance abuse and eating disorders.

“There’s not a psychiatrist in every room," Carlos Benjamin said. "You know, there’s always that scene on an airplane when someone has a heart attack and they’re like, ‘Is there a doctor on the plane?’”

But if you take the course, Benjamin said you’ll know what to do if someone is having a mental health crisis. Try to determine if they might commit suicide, listen to the person closely, reassure them and encourage them to get help.

"Early prevention, early intervention, better long-term prognosis for people," Benjamin said.

Training is also offered to first responders. Teacher David Kains said it often helps police understand why they might have to repeat themselves when dealing with someone who is having a psychotic episode.

“You know, if they want them to just stand there with their hands to their side, they might have to say it a few times, because it might take a little bit of time for that person that’s hearing voices to be able to filter out that voice and then listen to the person that’s giving them commands," Kains said.

 It’s not just cops who take the class. It can be everyone from people with a mentally ill family member to nurses and teachers.

In this session, there was a retiree who works with veterans, and Gloria Chavez-Gaytan, a volunteer for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center. She goes on home visits and said sometimes the treatment or the emotional toll of Parkinson’s can cause symptoms like the ones taught during Mental Health First Aid. Taking the class gave her perspective.

“It’s not that I don’t understand, it’s just kind of hard when you deal with somebody who has, you know, anxiety or depression," Chavez-Gaytan said. "I think I got a lot through this class.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults experience a mental health disorder each year. Carlos Benjamin hopes the class helps raise awareness and creates a little hope.

“A lot of people think that once you’re 'crazy' that you’re that way for the rest of your life," Benjamin said. "And what they don’t really know is that the majority of people who experience mental health problems recover from them.”

When Mental Health First Aid came to Arizona, the state health department set a goal of getting nearly 3,000 people trained. Right now, they’re only about 300 shy, and Magellan is holding more trainings in April and May.

A proposed bill in the Arizona Legislature would have provided a quarter million dollars in funding to expand Mental Health First Aid programs like this one. The bill passed the state House, but appears to be stalled in the Senate.