On May 1, 2019, I attended a Mental Health First Aid Training, in Albany, New York, sponsored by the Mental Health Association in New York State, Inc. (MHANYS). What I liked about the training was that the trainer began by asking each participant about why they signed up to take the Mental Health First Aid training. What stood out to me about this question, was that in a room full of approximately 16 individuals, more than half of the participants stated that they enrolled to take this training for personal reasons. These participants felt that the number of individuals they know that are suffering from mental health issues had affected their own lives in such a profound way that they were hoping to gain additional skills on how to deal with these issues when faced with them.
Interestingly enough, you would think that because I have dealt with mental health on both a personal and professional level so much, that by now I should be an expert on how to handle crisis situations involving it, right? Wrong! I was just like many others in the room, curious about what this training could offer me and how I could use what was taught to improve how I react to someone experiencing a mental health “episode.” Depending on the situation, how I react could mean life or death for many or one.
As the training came to an end, I began reflecting on the content presented and the lessons that I’d learned. I felt that there were two key lessons that I took away from the training that day.
The symptoms of an individual’s diagnosis are unique to that person. Example: Jim and Suzy both have a diagnosis of Schizophrenia-Paranoid Type. Jim’s symptoms may include hallucinations and delusions, disorganized thinking, and changes in body language and emotions, while Suzy displays a lack of attention to hygiene, slow movement, and hallucinations and delusions. How you deal with Suzy and Jim would differ because they are not the same person. Their level of awareness, functionality, or lack thereof is unique to their personalities, upbringing, genes, life experiences, etc. This unique combination of factors would affect what triggers their “episodes” and what coping mechanisms they are equipped with to deal with their current situation. A simple touch, the sound of your voice, or a specific movement you make, could either deescalate or escalate the situation more.
Just because an individual does not have a medical diagnosis, it does not mean that they are not mentally ill. Many people throughout the country go undiagnosed for many different reasons; whether they lack health insurance, have a fear of doctors, and/or don’t want to be “labeled” as having a mental illness doesn’t mean that their illness goes away. There are also people living amongst us who don’t know that they are suffering from a mental illness. They may go about their everyday lives just dealing with their symptoms, not knowing how else to handle what they are experiencing or who to trust with such sensitive information. Keep in mind that there also are individuals who have been diagnosed with a mental illness, but lack the necessary resources needed to afford their medication(s) and care. This is where you would need to recognize that the person is having a mental “break,” assess the situation to make sure that everyone is safe, and then take action!
An individual’s mental health varies from day to day depending on many different factors, such as lack of sleep, not having coffee in the morning, experiencing a death in the family, etc. This reminds me of when wireless earphones came out. At any given time, you would see someone driving or walking past, having a very intense conversation on the phone. From the outside looking in, you’re thinking that the person having the conversation is crazy, based off his/her movements and loud conversation “to themselves.” This could be you! You could be out at the grocery store running errands when you get the worst news of your life, and you pass out. Would you want someone hovered over you administering NARCAN because they thought that you overdosed, or would you want someone treating you with respect, asking questions, and providing assistance? Mental illness or not, remember the Golden Rule—treat others the way you would like to be treated, and the world would be a better place.