Photo: Clasped Hands by Rhoda Baer for National Cancer Institute, an agency part of the National Institutes of Health

What do ALGEE and a koala bear have to do with mental health? I spent 5 days in Charlotte, NC learning just what a difference they both can make.   Mental Health First Aid USA is an interactive 12-hour course that teaches community members how to identify signs and symptoms of mental illness and prepares them with the tools needed to respond appropriately with care, information, and referral. The program originated in Australia, where its effectiveness has been rigorously evaluated.  This is also why the mascot is a very cute koala bear.

Mental Health First Aid is for everyone.  It is for your neighbor, your hairdresser, your local fireman, your grandmother, your uncle and your schoolteacher.  The program teaches participants how to develop an action plan for when they come across someone who may be struggling and need some assistance.  You may be able to help a stranger in a mall parking lot, your best friend or a co-worker.  The action plan involves 5 simple steps that are easy to remember (especially after practicing with them for 2 days!).  Mental Health First Aiders learn to 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 (ALGEE).

I believe that the power of this program comes not only from the ability to help save lives and promote treatment and recovery, but it is also a very powerful way to combat the stigma that people with mental health and substance use disorders face.  Mental Health First Aid reminds us that we need to understand our brains and how to treat them, just as much as we need to understand our hearts and our lungs.  It will be a great day when we have as many people certified in Mental Health First Aid as we do certified by the American Red Cross in CPR and First Aid.

I am very excited to instruct my first Mental Health First Aid course for my co-workers at PRA in August.  I hope that all of you who are reading this blog will visit this website and find a course in your community. We can all be better neighbors by taking the time to understand each other and to reach out with informed support.