Mental health first aid training prepares all Washtenaw County residents to respond in a crisis

Free mental health first aid training teaches skills for participants to provide assistance and support to someone experiencing a mental health crisis. 
​​This article is part of a series about mental health in Washtenaw County. It is made possible with funding from Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage.

First aid typically involves the short-term treatment of someone’s physical health, like bandaging a small cut or applying a wet towel to a minor burn. But professionals across all fields in Washtenaw County, alongside three million people across the United States, are also being trained in first aid for mental health.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a program, initially started in 2001 by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, that teaches participants "how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders," according to the council’s website

Free MHFA training, provided in Washtenaw County by Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH) as part of the Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage, teaches skills for participants to provide assistance and support to someone experiencing a mental health crisis. MHFA training is designed with many individuals and workplaces in mind, from office spaces to summer camps. The free eight-hour training course is available for anyone to take. 

The Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) is one local organization that saw a particular need for its staff to receive MHFA training. Shannon Novara, program manager for community and school partnerships at WISD, explains that the COVID-19 pandemic created a "huge need" to support student mental health across Washtenaw County. 
Shannon Novara.
"We had a mental health crisis before the pandemic, and it increased exponentially post-pandemic," Novara says. "It’s going to take all hands on deck to support our young people."

Novara, who is certified in youth MHFA, also feels that the training is particularly helpful to those who may not already know how to identify when a student is in crisis, or how to help develop a plan of action for someone who is in need of support. 

"What I like about the program and the way we promote it in the community is that it’s like CPR for mental health," she says. "It’s designed for anyone, and it empowers people to have conversations about mental health with young people."

Youth MHFA is designed for adults who work with individuals aged 12-18, including not just teachers and social workers in schools, but other staff such as cafeteria workers and bus drivers.

While the training content in youth and adult MHFA is slightly different, the primary message stays the same. WCCMH Youth and Family Services Program Administrator Elizabeth Spring, who is certified in both youth and adult MHFA, explains that the message is not only to determine when an individual is in need of mental health first aid, but for those administering it to consider their own experiences when providing support.
Elizabeth Spring.
"What’s helpful for one may not be helpful for another, and people define health, wellness, and care differently depending on where they’re coming from," Spring says. "We want first-aiders to approach every situation neutrally and respect confidentiality."

Spring notes that MHFA training goes beyond how to provide mental health first aid to others. It also covers topics such as personal self-care after support and care have already been provided, as well as being able to determine when a first-aider needs to find a different provider to assist a person in need.

"If you’re going to be helping someone through a crisis, or getting them connected to the right resources, you can get secondary trauma," Spring says. "We want to make sure that first-aiders have a good plan for themselves, which can involve recognizing that sometimes you may not be the right person to help that person, but you may know someone who is and can stay with the person until that someone arrives."
Celeste Gentile.
WISD teacher consultant Celeste Gentile often works closely with Spring to co-facilitate training sessions. She says the training helps address and reduce stigma by prompting participants to self-evaluate how they think and talk about mental health.

"Because there’s been a stigma around mental health pretty much forever, we may not be able to completely eradicate it, but we do things like evaluating our language to help battle it," Gentile says. "We want everyone to have the perspective that the brain is no different from any other part of the body when it’s unwell."

Gentile says MHFA training can be beneficial for anyone, both in professional roles as well as at home and in other community contexts.

"We all have humans in our lives to varying capacities. Most of us have family, chosen or biological, and even being able to interact with a family member or friend or neighbor [and] recognizing signs and symptoms is important," Gentile says. "There is no community member who wouldn’t benefit from attending one of these sessions."

Training is primarily conducted virutally, in part due to pandemic concerns and in part to increase accessibility for those with little availability due to work or other commitments. For more information on MHFA, or to find upcoming training sessions, visit MHFA’s website or contact WCCMH.

"We need every adult to feel like they can provide some kind of short-term assistance to break down the stigma of mental health and not be afraid to have those conversations," Novara says. "We encourage every adult to take this course."

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

Shannon Novara photos by Doug Coombe. Elizabeth Spring and Celeste Gentile photos courtesy of the subjects.
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