Mental Health First Aid: A Course You Might Not Know You Need

Statistics show that mental health has worsened significantly over the pandemic, with cases of depression and anxiety in youth and adults on the rise. In the context of church ministry, Christian education directors, youth ministry leaders and pastors may find themselves in the position of needing to provide support to children, youth or adults who are suffering from mental illness. In a Mental Health First Aid training course, non-medically trained people can learn important first steps to take to support those who are suffering from mental illness. We asked Shruti Kulkarni, who is certified in Mental Health First Aid, to share about her experience with taking this course.

What is a Mental Health First Aid training course? 

Mental Health First Aid is a skills-based training course that teaches the basics of how to recognize and respond to mental health crises of various kinds. The training course has been described as akin to CPR and First Aid for mental health crises. You are trained as a first responder—that is, someone who is able to respond at the first sign of symptoms and help the person afflicted, until he or she can be cared for by a trained mental health professional. You will be taught about such mental health concerns as depression and mood disorders, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders. You’ll be equipped to respond to such situations as panic attacks, suicidal thoughts or actions, nonsuicidal self-harm, psychosis, drug overdose or withdrawal and response to a traumatic event, in safe and helpful ways. 

The training course is designed for total beginners with little to no background in mental health. You do not need any prior experience, knowledge or training to take this course. There are versions of the training course designed for helping adults, helping youth, helping older adults, teenagers helping their peers, veterans and their families, the workplace, higher education, public safety officers, firefighters and EMS workers, and rural communities. The standard adult training course takes approximately eight hours to complete. The emphasis of the training course is on pointing the way to recovery and on building resiliency. 

Why did you choose to take this training? 

It so happened that the standard adult training course was offered at the hospital at which I was serving as Chaplain Intern, as part of the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program in which I was enrolled. But I knew about, and had interest in, this training course well before I had the opportunity to take it at the place at which I served. By the time I had taken the training, I had already encountered several mental health crises in the real world, and I knew first-hand how vital it is to appropriately respond to such situations. But I did not feel confident in my approach to responding. I wanted to be sure that I’d do all the things which are helpful rather than harmful to the person afflicted. I took the training course so that I could learn—from the experts—the proper ways to respond to the mental health crises I encounter. 

What are some benefits of being certified in mental health first aid? 

Mental health crises can be frightening to experience and/or to witness. When we encounter them, we are concerned, but we don’t always know how best to respond. It’s tempting in such situations to withdraw rather than respond, out of fear that if we do something, we might make things worse rather than better. But if we do so, we’ll miss the opportunity to provide necessary and potentially life-saving care to those who need it. That is why training courses such as this one are needed. This training course equips us to confidently respond to such situations in ways that are known to be safe and effective. 

Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, studies are showing that mental health issues–especially anxiety and depression–are on the rise in all age groups. How could this training help ministry workers be ready to support the children, youth, and families in their community?

When dealing with mental health crises, early intervention is vital. It is far too easy for mental health conditions, which are easily treatable in their milder forms, to spiral out of control when left undetected and untreated. The problem with mental health crises is that they can be hard to spot to the untrained eye. To make matters worse, it’s not uncommon for people who need help with mental health concerns to deny that they need it. There is still a terrible stigma attached to mental illness, and some people would rather go without help to avoid bearing the shame. Some people are experts in saying “I’m fine” when they’re really not. Responding appropriately is also vital, especially in highly sensitive situations such as suicidal ideation; the right response could be life-giving, whereas the wrong response could make the problem worse. That is why it is essential for those who work closely with people, as ministry workers do, to recognize as well as to respond effectively to mental health crises and disorders. This training will equip ministry workers with the knowledge and skills they need to identify those in distress, to reach out to them and to take care of them until they get the help they need.  

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