Last February, I was walking to my car after Sunday dim sum, and noticed a young boy, probably around six years old, frantically searching the rows of parked cars with tears streaming down his face. I instantly kicked into protective mode and calmly approached the kiddo, and asked him if he needed help. He grabbed my hand and pleaded, "Maa-ma, maa-ma!"
Last November at IKEA, I noticed a customer staring blankly at a row of kitchen utensils, and simply asked, "How's it going?" "Not so good," she replied, and began to cry. I hugged her and reassured her that she was not alone.
I'm sure many of us have had interactions with people we don't know who needed our help, or maybe even close friends or family members who have called on us in their times of need. Unless you've lead a life of public service or have training in crisis management and social work, it can be daunting to know what to do in the heat of the moment. Enter: Mental Health First Aid certification.
I first became aware of MHFA when I was an AmeriCorps VISTA. I had just transferred sites from MA to CT, and learned that I had missed the Youth MHFA certification training by a day. A day! Although it was not required that I become certified in order to serve as a VISTA, I was still intrigued. After doing a little research on my own, I found that MHFA training comes in two certification courses--youth and adult--and for the most part, they're offered fee-free or with a small donation (depending on who's hosting them) on a very regular basis. I was sold.
My first stop was Adult MHFA certification, an eight-hour course spread over two days. It was hosted by a local church, where I met some of the most generous and kindhearted Connecticuters, and was led by a licensed social worker and registered nurse. The course was absolutely fantastic, giving us action plans and opportunities to practice navigating scenarios in which we encounter anxiety, depression, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, and bipolar episodes in our friends, our family members, and the broader community. It helped us explore our own biases and conceptions about mental health in order to move past negative associations and stigma, so we're able to meet our community's needs with empathy and without reservation.
I should stress that while I am trained to manage folks in these states clinically, this course does not at all teach diagnosis or treatment, but rather gives the tools necessary to stabilize someone in crisis until professional help arrives or the crisis resolves, much like CPR or First Aid certification. It empowers you to diffuse a stressful situation, to recommend resources for professional referrals, and to de-stigmatize mental health issues. Needless to say, I loved this incredible training, and found it to be quite valuable in both our professional lives (mine, as a physician, and hers, as a retail manager) and our personal lives.
As someone who experienced her first panic attack last year, I can attest to the fact that these episodes can come without reason and at inconvenient times. I am lucky that I was with someone when it happened, but it began only a short time before I was to board my commuter train into Boston, and I can't imagine having this experience by myself on public transportation. I want to make sure that if this does happen to anyone around me, I can be an effective supporter until help arrives or the episode passes.
As I'm making final arrangements to welcome kiddos home, I am well aware of the trauma all foster kids have sustained, regardless of their ages, and I want to be prepared for a mental health crisis, if one should arise. I finished my Youth MHFA certification last night, and can honestly say that it was very valuable to take both the Adult and Youth trainings. The mental health challenges that youth face today can be quite different than what adults do, and are certainly different from those we experienced as children. I know that there is still so much to learn about parenthood, and that most of our education will come when we are placed, but between the TIPS-MAPP training, Common Sense Parenting, and Youth MHFA, I'm certainly feeling a lot more confident and prepared!
Anyway, all this to say: if you've got eight to sixteen hours to spend challenging your own misconceptions and honing essential skills to help your community, I'd highly recommend enrolling in a Mental Health First Aid certification course, stat. You could literally be saving a life.
About the Author
Sarah Ouano is a naturopathic doctor and writer. A fierce advocate for health equity and rights of the marginalized, she frequently writes about the intersection of naturopathic medicine and public health, throwing in personal anecdotes and tasty (and practical) recipes along the way.