Mental Health First Aid helps people experiencing symptoms and crises

Mental Health First Aid prepares people to assist somebody who's experiencing a mental health crisis or beginning to experience signs and symptoms of a mental health challenge.

This article is part of MI Mental Health, a new series highlighting the opportunities that Michigan's children, teens, and adults of all ages have to find the mental health help they need, when and where they need it. It is made possible with funding from Sanilac County Community Mental Health, Community Mental Health Association of Michigan and its community mental health (CMH) agency members. 

Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, teachers, first responders, child care workers, and others routinely take a class to learn how to give first aid. The International Red Cross shares that in emergencies, 90% of lives are saved by regular people administering first aid. What if people experiencing mental health emergencies received similar help? In Sanilac County, they are. Since 2017, Sanilac County Community Mental Health has offered free training in Mental Health First Aid on a regular basis. The next workshops are coming up in April and May.

Kellie Phelps, Sanilac County Community Mental Health“The main focus of Mental Health First Aid is to prepare people to assist somebody who's experiencing a mental health crisis or beginning to experience signs and symptoms of a mental health challenge,” says Kellie Phelps, administrative assistant in prevention and public education at Sanilac County Community Mental Health. “We cover the most common mental health disorders in the United States — depression, anxiety, trauma, psychosis, substance use disorders — and we learn the impact that these challenges can have on a person's wellbeing. We explore the signs and symptoms of mental health challenges and how to recognize when there could be a challenge or a crisis developing.”

Phelps serves as a Mental Health First Aid trainer, focusing on general workshops for assisting youth and adults as well as tailored sessions for firefighters and paramedics. Four other certified trainers in the SCCMH program train people from the general population as well as those working in schools and law enforcement. Trainers include a peer support specialist, a master’s level social worker, and a direct care worker.

“We’re fortunate to have a real mix of trainers,” Phelps says. “It isn’t necessary to have a degree but having some experience in mental health or with the population that you're serving is helpful as is being comfortable speaking in front of people.”

A global program with local impacts

The SCCMH Mental Health First Aid program is affiliated with parent organization Mental Health First Aid USA. More than 15,000 instructors across the country have trained more than 2.5 million people to identify and assist others experiencing a possible mental illness or substance use disorder. Mental Health First Aid was founded in 2001 in Australia. The program has since gone global. SCCMH is one of many Michigan community mental health agencies offering the eight-hour training.

“One of the things we really emphasize is staying calm, especially in a crisis situation,” Phelps says. “We use the analogy of a duck moving in the water. It looks elegant and calm as it's gliding. But what's really happening under the surface is that it's paddling its little feet off. We equip people with the knowledge, tools, and practice to be able to exude that calm, keep a listening ear, and respond appropriately.”

The course provides an action plan summed up in five steps: Assess for risk of suicide or harm, listen nonjudgmentally, give reassurance and information, encourage appropriate professional help, and encourage self-help and other support strategies.

“The five-step action plan prepares participants to assist somebody who's experiencing a crisis,” Phelps says. “We also talk about evidence-based treatments and where a person can go for help.”

Knowing what to say could save a life.


By reducing the fear and overcoming the hesitation felt when confronted with a person having mental health challenges, Mental Health First Aid provides a basis for initiating those difficult conversations that can result in a fellow human being getting the help they need.


“We also address the stigma surrounding mental health,” Phelps says. “We help participants to develop a new language, how to talk about mental health challenges and persons experiencing them in what we call person-first language. Rather than referring to a person as 'depressed' and equating them with their illness, we simply say they are 'living with depression.'”

SCCMH welcomes anyone in the community who is 18 years of age or older to take its Mental Health First Aid course — participants have included parents, first responders, teachers, police officers, pastors, mental health professionals, social services, nurses, HR professionals, and students. On April 25, SCCMH will offer Youth Mental Health First Aid, for adults who want to be able to help young people. The general course will be offered on May 9. Those interested in registering can call Phelps at 810-583-0394 or email

Phelps notes that most people suffer for a long time with the symptoms and challenges of mental illness before they seek help. For her, Mental Health First Aid is one way of getting them help sooner — and restoring their quality of life.

“Whether somebody's experiencing a mental health crisis or just beginning to experience signs and symptoms of a mental health challenge, it's extremely important that they are able to connect with help as soon as possible,” Phelps concludes. “There are so many barriers today to help-seeking. Anytime someone can come alongside somebody who's experiencing a disorder or crisis and can encourage that person to get connected to appropriate help and supports, there's great potential for a shorter duration of symptomology — avoidance of suicidal thoughts, ideation, and attempts — and a quicker recovery.”

Estelle Slootmaker is project editor for the MI Mental Health Series. Contact her at

Photos courtesy Sanilac County Community Mental Health.

The MI Mental Health series highlights the opportunities that Michigan's children, teens and adults of all ages have to find the mental health help they need, when and where they need it. It is made possible with funding from the Community Mental Health Association of MichiganCenter for Health and Research TransformationGenesee Health SystemMental Health Foundation of West MichiganNorth Country CMHNorthern Lakes CMH AuthorityOnPointSanilac County CMHSt. Clair County CMHSummit Pointe, and Washtenaw County CMH.
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