October 1st, 2011

CPR for Mental Illness Program is Growing

More than 12 million people receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation training annually, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Mental Health First Aid-USA, a collaborative effort between the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, the Maryland State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Missouri Department of Mental Health, is attempting to bring similar attention to mental illness.

The program originated in Australia in 2001 and came to this country in Feb. 2008. Mary Cimini, MSW, a certified coach and independent trainer of Mental Health First Aid instructors from Smithfield, R.I., attended the first class and notes that only seven states participated in the program at that time. “The program is in 46 states now and more than 20,000 individuals have been certified as first aiders and the numbers are growing,” she says. “There are now 1,200 instructors in the United States and the program has expanded to 16 countries.”

Cimini says that the concept, which aims to increase literacy and decrease stigma, is long overdue. “One in four Americans is affected by mental illness, but few people know how to respond,” she says. “Mental illness is far more common and more disabling than physical illness.”

The 12-hour training is designed for any individual and the five-day program certifies individuals to become instructors. Cimini emphasizes that the program, which adheres to strict quality standards and follows a consistent format geared toward the adult learner, does not purport to train individuals to become clinicians. “We teach people to be a compassionate presence so the person [with mental health issues] can be heard, assisted and not judged,” she says.

The program utilizes the “ALGEE” action plan. Cimini explains that the individual assesses the suicide/harm risk; listens in a non-judgmental way; gives reassurance and information; encourages the individual to find an appropriate professional resource and encourages self-help.

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education is exploring the effects of Mental Health First Aid training in the college environment and invited Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), along with 31 other schools, to take part in a two-year study. Shauna E. Summers, Ph.D., clinical counselor in student development and counseling services, says, “Certain residence halls were selected to provide training for the RAs. We used counseling center data and referrals to measure if the training was helpful. We wrapped up the study in May and the preliminary results are optimistic.”

Summers reports that this fall, she will begin training residence life personnel and those who interact most with students. “We then hope to branch out to any faculty member who wants the training,” she says, eventually offering workshops to other college campuses.

Judy Thompson, CAGS, coordinator, counseling, psychology and community outreach services for the Worcester Public Schools, praises the program as a supportive and knowledgeable public health approach to emotional distress that, if properly implemented, will help reduce stigma. She says that using an environmental approach is the optimal way to bring understanding to the whole community. “The goal is to disseminate this knowledge so it’s as commonplace as basic first aid,” Thompson says.

“There is no one for whom this workshop is not relevant,” says Cimini. “This is a movement that can change the world.”

By Phyllis Hanlon

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