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Jefferson County employees to receive mental health first aid training

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Unlike medical first aid kits that come with bandages, gauze, a cold pack and maybe some medicine, there is no box of helpful tools people can use in case of a mental health emergency.

A man on the sidewalk who may talk loudly to himself or to a building wall or a woman who complains about the voices in her head may not necessarily be in crisis and in need of a medical evaluation or intervention, but new Mental Health First Aid USA training will help non-clinical emergency and law enforcement personnel determine the difference and defuse potentially dangerous situations.

“One of the issues is being able to have first responders or officers de-escalate a situation, but also be able to give them the right referral of what to do next,” said Timothy J. Reutten, Jefferson County Department of Community Services coordinator of mental health services.

First, he said, as many as 200 Jefferson County employees will receive the eight-hour training to learn about mental health first aid “kits,” or action plans. They include step-by-step guidance on how to recognize and handle mental health situations.

“Being able to engage a person and be able to put the authority piece aside and scariness of being in a situation in public aside, that’s what really this is about,” Mr. Reutten said. “This training helps the helper be more comfortable. We have to be more engaged with someone in a mental health crisis.”

Community Services will provide the training — free of charge — to people, but participants must pay a $15 fee if they would like a copy of the manual. Mr. Reutten is the sole trainer for the program. The Probation Department received the training last week, and other departments will schedule the training soon.

Jefferson County Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau said for law enforcement, the workshop will serve more as a review for people who have gone through the department’s training academy, which covers about three days’ worth of how to respond to a mental health situation.

“We also do in-service training once a year,” he said. “It just keeps them current and understanding someone having a mental blockage or breakdown to keep their composure.”

He said the department receives about two mental health calls per week.

According to the training manual, it’s important for responders to watch their own body language, how they speak and how well they listen to someone they come across with a mental health issue. The first big step, according to the manual, is understanding mental health. Mental health is described as a state of well-being, while a mental disorder is “a diagnosable illness that affects a person’s thinking, emotional state and behavior, and disrupts the person’s ability to work or carry out other daily activities and engage in satisfying personal relationships.”

Examples include anxiety, depression, substance use, bipolar and eating disorders and schizophrenia. Such disorders are treatable, and people with a diagnosis can work toward recovery and recognize what may trigger them to act out.

Mental Health First Aid can help someone to recognize warning signs by implementing the five-step action plan: assess the risk of suicide or harm, listen nonjudgmentally, give reassurance and information, encourage appropriate professional help, and encourage self-help and other support strategies.

Mr. Reutten said this training not only will help people in a mental health crisis, but will help others better understand mental illness more.

“It’s important to reach outside of the behavioral health community, and get more people to think about mental health,” he said. “It’s a community issue.”

While Mental Health Association in Jefferson County Executive Director Korin A. Scheible said she has yet to attend a training workshop, she supports avenues that keep the community educated about mental health.

“I’m sure it’s going to be an excellent outreach for all of the agencies,” she said.

Mr. Reutten said he hopes the training also reduces mental health stigma, which Ms. Scheible described as when “someone with a mental health illness is treated differently than anyone.”

“It happens all the time in public,” she said.

Although the Mental Health First Aid training is not yet open to the community, Mr. Reutten said that is his goal.

The training comes at a perfect time, he said, since the state is working through a plan to reduce the number of inpatient mental health beds, and switch to more outpatient-based services. That is a move happening throughout health care. Local hospitals already have reduced beds in preparation for a focus on increasing outpatient services.

For more information on the training program, visit www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

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