But if that same person vocalizes suicidal thoughts, the response, if any, could be all over the board, and so could its effectiveness.
There’s been a push in the mid-valley to change that by offering anyone — especially teachers, counselors, clergy, medical professionals and first responders — a course in a proven, evidence-based curriculum.
The eight-hour Adult Mental Health First Aid course and the eight-hour Youth Mental Health First Aid Course teach laypeople how to listen nonjudgmentally during emergency and nonemergency situations and to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders. Participants learn about trauma, depression and anxiety, how to assess for risk of suicide or harm, how to encourage self-help strategies and where to point to for further resources, if necessary.
“The goal is to get people to services and hopefully avert some of the tragedies we’ve had in the past years,” said Frank Moore, the Linn County Health Department administrator and director of the mental health division. “Hopefully, if we do this right, people get to services well before they become a threat to themselves or others.”
Moore and the director of the Oregon Family Support Network, Hilary Harrison, have in the past year become certified trainers, and the Mullins Healthy Children Fund has paid for the certification of two other instructors – Samaritan Health Services employees.
One in five people will, at one point, experience a mental health issue, so one of the main thrusts of the course is to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness and treat it as a legitimate medical issue. That is one reason retired nurse Barb Mullins and her husband, Samaritan Health Services President and CEO Larry Mullins, have put their charitable organization behind it.
“My passion for this is really personal,” Barb Mullins said. “I’ve had two people within my family on my father’s side that committed suicide. It was always kept very quiet — no one talked about it. … We need to talk about it as a mental illness.”
In the past six months, the Mullins Healthy Children Fund has been responsible for teaching Adult Mental Health First Aid to 105 people in the mid-valley. Next week, 30 school counselors and teachers from the Greater Albany Public School District will become the first group to be trained locally in Youth Mental Health First Aid. Samaritan instructors plan to schedule more trainings for Corvallis, Philomath and Lebanon school employees in the coming weeks – and for all of the mid-valley Mental Health First Aid instructors to coordinate a training schedule for adult and youth courses.
In addition to the local attention on the curriculum, the state of Oregon has awarded a grant to pay for people throughout the state to become Mental Health First Aid instructors so they can spread the information to others.
“The idea is in a year to train 5,000 people statewide in Mental Health First Aid for youth or for adults,” Moore said.
The grant is an amazing breakthrough, Moore said. In his 40-year career, the state has dedicated the overwhelming majority of its mental health funding to crisis response and the state hospital, and practically nothing toward prevention.
“Here, for the first time in my career, is the opportunity to do prevention-oriented work in the community at a local level,” he said. “The state has never funded prevention services for mental health — this is the first time in 40 years.”
Barb Mullins believes the courses are a step in the right direction, but she warns there is still a lot more work to be done to get mental health support and resources to those who need it.
“Mental Health First Aid is not the end all, be all,” she said. “It’s just a piece of the giant puzzle that we’re working on to help people.”