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My Turn: In battle to save lives, a new program emerges

After participating in New Hampshire’s first statewide Mental Health First Aid training held last month in Manchester, my mission over the next 12 months will be to train other New Hampshire citizens to identify and understand signs of mental illness and how to offer help.

I see the Mental Health First Aid movement as a truly community-based solution to three public policy dilemmas that are not unique to New Hampshire: 1.) De-stigmatizing mental illness; 2.) Addressing the mental health problems of our family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers before they become real crises; and 3.) Saving our communities and the state money for the far more expensive treatment that becomes necessary when early intervention doesn’t take place.

The Manchester MHFA program was an intensive, five-day training offered by the New Hampshire Community Behavioral Health Association, the National Council for Behavioral Health, and the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

As a certified trainer, I and the 29 others who completed last month’s program are now charged with teaching at least three, eight-hour Mental Health First Aid courses within the next year to others in our communities.

The participants can be teachers, students, family members, sports coaches, school bus drivers, health care workers, social workers, police and firefighters, EMTs, employers – anyone in the community who works with, cares for or interacts with others.

Mental Health First Aid, like traditional first aid, is a set of skills that is useful to know if you want to save lives.

Mental Health First Aid originated in Australia in 2000, and it is now used worldwide to train individuals how to recognize mental illnesses and substance use disorders, and where to find help, whether it is self-help or professional resources.

There is more information on the program’s genesis on the MHFA website at mentalhealthfirstaid.org, which offers a wealth of stories, studies and reports on its history and success

In my professional life, I am an administrator at the National Alliance on Mental Illness-New Hampshire, and many of my fellow participants who completed last month’s training are also employed in the mental health system. But I know that we all benefited from the increased self-awareness the training instilled.

Most of us have learned basic first aid at some point in our lives. If we see a person clutch their chest or take a fall, we instinctively reach out to provide assistance. We understand our role is not to provide treatment but to assist in that moment and help connect the individual with a medical professional.

Mental Health First Aid not only provides these same basic skills to help recognize psychiatric distress but raises our awareness to the signs and symptoms that may be present in anyone we interact with.

Even for those in the mental health profession, the responses and skills that are taught can be used outside of a clinical setting with friends, family members or anyone we come in contact with.

For me, as I am sure for others who participated in the training, mental illness is not only a profession but has affected the life of someone I love.

For many years I have watched my son’s illness stigmatized by a lack of understanding on the part of those around him, including teachers, employers, health care providers, friends and family.

I can only imagine the different response they would have had to him if they had gained the awareness and insight that the Mental Health First Aid training provides. Not only would that have greatly benefited my son, but it also would have provided these well-intentioned people the ability to feel empowered to assist someone in need.

The Mental Health First Aid program has the power to educate and change people’s perspectives and reduce negative attitudes about mental illness so that those in need of help and treatment can be supported.

I think I can speak for all of us that as newly certified trainers of Mental Health First Aid we are very excited to bring this life-changing program to the citizens of New Hampshire.

(Annette Carbonneau is the grants operation and volunteer development manager at NAMI-NH, the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.)

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