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When a Mental Crisis Hits, First Aid to the Rescue

We've all heard about first aid training to help someone in physical distress. Whether someone is bleeding, choking, or unconscious, there's an established protocol for such emergencies. But what if someone is in mental distress? That's an area that's a bit murkier. There’s a movement to train citizens in Mental Health First Aid, and today about 20 Mainers had their first lesson.

Before you can learn how to respond to someone in mental distress, you need to first recognize common signs and symptoms. So early in the day-long training put on by Sweetser - a behavioral health organization - participants were split into groups and given a large sheet of paper.

Trainer Dean Bailey instructed them to draw a person. "And try to draw on that person signs and symptoms of anxiety."

Feverish scribbling begins as participants sketch out their understanding of one of the most common mental illnesses. Wrinkles and tears are added to the face. The hand holds a bottle of alcohol - a sign that this patient is self-medicating. And someone starts to mark red in the chest area.

Dean Bailey says the goal of Mental Health First Aid is, in part, to help the public better understand mental illness.

"I mean, there was a point in time when somebody drowned in a swiming pool everyone stood on the sidelines and didn't do anything," Bailey says. "And nowadays, people automatically do CPR or rescue breathing. We wanted to reach a point in the state of Maine, where people respond when they see someone who is in mental distress."

Bailey says you don't need to be an expert to help someone developing a mental illness or in an actual crisis. The course is designed for the general public - from business professionals to teachers to families who have experienced mental illness.

"First thing I tell people is to not be afraid," Bailey says.

Then follow an action plan that's easily remembered using the mnemonic device "ALGEE:" Assess for risk of harm. Listen non-judgmentally. Give reassurance. And encourage professional help and other support.

Participant Randy Minor says the strategy makes sense, but it's tough in practice. He has a young son with a mental illness who is at times violent.

"I think a lot of people, when someone is out of control, you try to get, like, in that realm or something," Minor says. "It's not a good thing to do, and that's why I'm here - is to get other positive strategies to do so."

Meredith Richardson is also looking for strategies, but in her professional life as a mediator. "I've had a couple of situations in mediation - maybe more than couple, as I think about it," Richardson says - situations where she's been worried that her clients may have an undiagnosed mental illness.

Richardson says she's required to have domestic violence training. "We have the training, in terms of making sure that people don't hurt others, but there's less in terms of training to figure out whether they could be a potential risk of harm to themselves, and what to do with that and how to have that conversation," she says.

Dean Bailey says when you get down to it, Mental Health First Aid means being direct with someone you're concerned about. Ask if they're considering hurting themselves. Help them find assistance.

Charlene Martin says patience and understanding finally led her to recovery. She struggled with mental illness since 2001, after her 1-year-old son died in a crib accident. Her pain from that traumatic experience culminated in a suicide attempt.

"I was one of those that was considered hopeless because I was so medicated," she says. "And now I'm not. I'm succeeding. And I just want to make a difference for somebody else."

Martin says knowing Mental Health First Aid could save someone's life.

Sweetser will offer another training in June.

Learn more about the training here.

Learn more about Mental Health First Aid.