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By | February 4, 2017

Launching a new program is a bit like eating an elephant. Even though you’ve got a great vision and a huge goal, you still have to tackle it one bite at a time.

That’s the approach that has taken with launching Mental Health First Aid in the United States. We envision Mental Health First Aid becoming as commonplace as CPR and First Aid within the next fifteen years. Some may call that an elephant, but the results of our first program year demonstrate that the challenge is immensely doable especially with a few extra-large bites.

Since its launch last year, more than 300 instructors have been certified in Mental Health First Aid, a program that builds mental health literacy and teaches non-clinicians basic skills in how to help someone experiencing a mental health problem or crisis. A Mental Health First Aider learns to provide assistance until the problem resolves or until other appropriate help is engaged.

It’s evident that Mental Health First Aid is the right program coming at the right time. When we began this initiative, we were hoping to certify about twenty organizations to introduce Mental Health First Aid in their communities. As of this summer, the end of our official pilot year, we had nearly one hundred fifty organizations offering the program.

The growth of the program has not surprised many of the National Council’s board leaders, who were among the first to adopt Mental Health First Aid. “The multiple wins of the program were obvious from the start,” says Dr. Carl Clark, first vice chair of the National Council Board and CEO of the Mental Health Center of Denver, one of the initial pilot sites. “We can enhance community resilience, offer potential partners an easy-to-understand service, broaden our focus beyond serious mental illness, and further secure our role as community problem solvers.”

Don Miskowiec of North Central Behavioral Health Systems agrees. “Even though we’re dealing with devastating and demanding budget cuts here in Illinois, we are committed to Mental Health First Aid. If anything, it’s even more necessary in our current environment.” After participating in the initial training, Miskowiec’s center added six additional instructors to his team for 2009.

The program focuses on three key elements: recognizing warning signs, increasing skills to help individuals reach out to those with mental health challenges, and understanding how professional and self-help supports can help.

From hospitals and the workplace to college campuses and the general public, Mental Health First Aid addresses not only stigma, but also the real desire to help someone who is struggling. Mental Health First Aid makes it okay to reach out. So often people want to help, but we’re not sure what to do and don’t want to risk doing the ‘wrong’ thing. Mental Health First Aid teaches participants that it’s okay not to have all the answers and increases their comfort level.

To date, the National Council has partnered with the Australian founders as well as the state governments in Maryland and Missouri to ensure that we have a clear, evidence-based and unified Mental Health First Aid curriculum in the United States. In addition, the National Council has created and refined the instructor training program, tracked community engagement, and partnered with the University of Maryland and SAMHSA to evaluate the fidelity of the U.S. program to that of the Australian original. And, the National Council provides ongoing support to MHFA program sites and instructors through individual consultation, a technical assistance website and an instructors listserve. This spring, the national MHFA E-News monthly newsletter was launched to provide updates, share successes, and keep the momentum going.

It’s important that we continue our relationship with the instructors. We’re identifying new ways to share learnings and outcomes from across the country and connecting to common needs, such as supplemental programs and standardized evaluation tools.

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Recognizing that the popularity of Mental Health First Aid also increases the need for significant support, capacity and branding, I must emphasize that the National Council is in this for the long haul. The pilot’s success is both fulfilling and a little intimidating. Perhaps a bit like eating an elephant.


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