Mental health CPR: Program trains the public, first responders to support those in crisis

For Harford Magazine

Many of us brush up on first aid and CPR skills, but there are times when we may encounter someone who is in mental, not physical, distress.

Mental Health First Aid, a free eight-hour course regularly offered at several Harford County locations, trains the public and first responders to support someone who is having symptoms related to mental illness, substance abuse, crisis or trauma.

“Very simply, it’s mental health CPR,” says Lt. Marc Junkerman of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s cffice is part of a collaboration of local government, nonprofit and advocacy agencies that coordinate the training.

“It’s not designed to make anyone a clinician or take the place of clinical support,” he adds. “It is a layman’s approach to being a concerned citizen or a trained first responder, to help someone who is having a behavioral health crisis.”

The training teaches participants how to first recognize someone who may be experiencing acute signs of depression, anxiety, psychosis, substance abuse or suicidal thoughts.

“The course helps you identify what is happening and step in to help that person get professional help and stay safe,” says Shawn Dundon, who works for the Harford County Office on Mental Health and oversees the training sessions.

Dundon adds that Harford’s Mental Health First Aid is part of a countrywide project overseen by the National Council on Behavioral Health. Participants learn a five-step action plan that begins with assessing for suicide risk and listening to what the person is feeling. The training explores ways that responders can give reassurance and information, encourage professional assistance and encourage the individual to seek out family or peer supports. The day includes lectures, films, group discussions and role-playing.

Susan Brown of Aberdeen works in a cardiology practice and volunteers for the National Patient Advocacy Foundation and Backpacks for Life, a veteran support nonprofit.

“The course helps to give the opening to approach someone on the street who may be crying,” says Brown, who took the course. “It gives the tools and right words. Sometimes that is all someone needs. The person could be having a bad day that could go into another and then another if someone doesn’t reach out.”

Across Harford County, more than 1,000 people have completed Mental Health First Aid training since 2009. They include health care workers, emergency responders, community advocates, librarians, clergy members and families, as well as people who themselves have experienced mental illness. In 2010, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office was the first law enforcement agency in the country to adopt the training as its primary mental health training for all employees.

As a faith leader, as well as a person with a family history of mental illness, the Rev. Lisa Bornt of Grace Episcopal Church in Darlington has come together with many in times of crisis.

“There is so much stigma around mental health. I know it was like that in my family, but it is also happening culturally,” says Bornt, who took the course. “If we can make mental health a regular part of our conversation, it is more likely that people will recognize that they need help or more willing to accept help.”

The Harford County Office on Mental Health, Healthy Harford/Healthy Cecil, University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, the Harford County Department of Community Services, Harford Community College, Mental Health Association of Maryland and the Friends R Family Foundation work together to bring Mental Health First Aid training to the public and to first responders. Several courses are designed specifically to meet the unique behavioral health issues of youths.

To access Mental Health First Aid training dates and locations, go to mentalhealthfirstaid.org, mhfamaryland.org, healthyharford.org or harfordmentalhealth.org/news_and_events

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