‘First Aid’ for Mental Health Concerns

Most of us are familiar with basic first aid approaches to manage medical situations, or perhaps you’ve even had a first aid course at school or work.

But did you know you can now take a special type of first aid course to learn how to better handle mental health concerns and crises?

I had heard about “Mental Health First Aid” some time ago, so I was very excited when recently I was able to attend a one-day class in my community. I’d like to give you a quick review of the program and share a few thoughts about why you should become more familiar with this valuable approach.

Mental Health First Aid

Mental Health First Aid originated in Australia in 2000 where it has been widely adopted, and it has since spread around the world to over 20 countries. As of 2016, over 1.7 million people worldwide have been trained in the approach. Mental Health First Aid is listed in SAMHSA’s National Registry of Evidence-Based  Programs and Practices (NREPP), a repository of effective scientifically-based behavioral health interventions.

Mental Health First Aid is defined as the help offered to a person developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. The first aid is given until appropriate treatment and support are received or until the crisis resolves. The class is open to anyone; no prior mental health training is required.

The program began with a very useful overview of several reasons why this approach is needed:

  • Mental health problems are very common (18.1% of US adults will have a mental disorder in any one year.)
  • Stigma about mental health conditions remains widespread.
  • Many people are not well informed about mental health issues.
  • Professional help is not always on hand.
  • Most people don’t know how to respond to mental health concerns.
  • Many people with mental health problems don’t seek help.

The course included a thorough overview of the prevalence of mental disorders, and reviewed the major symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, psychosis (loss of touch with reality), substance use, and eating disorders. Common suicide risk factors and features associated with non-suicidal self-injury were also reviewed.

Other important topics in the class included the negative effects of stigma, the concept of recovery, common myths and misperceptions about mental illness, and various treatment interventions. All of the course information plus a vast array of websites, books and other resources was provided in a comprehensive manual for future reference.

While I was very familiar with much of this information from my professional training and experience, I found the course material to be very accurate, current and informative. As I listened, I tried to put myself in the place of a layperson attending the class with little or no prior knowledge of mental health conditions and issues. I felt the information was presented at an appropriate introductory level, but with sufficient detail to give a very thorough picture of each condition.

Mental Health First Aid Action Plan

At the heart of the Mental Health First Aid approach is the “Action Plan.” The action plan can be recalled by using the mnemonic “ALGEE,” which is also the name of the program’s super cute koala bear mascot. ALGEE stands for:

A – Assess for risk of suicide or harm

The first step includes determining if there is a problem, checking to see if a crisis exists, and assisting the person as needed to manage the situation. If risk of harm to self or others is present, professional help must be sought immediately.

L – Listen nonjudgmentally

This step includes using basic priniciples of empathic listening without passing judgment on the person or their behavior.

G – Give reassurance and information

The reassurance provided includes both emotional support as well as offering practical information about possible resources and options for assistance.

E – Encourage appropriate professional help

Professional help is often a critically important component of a person’s overall recovery. It is important to offer information about treatment options and how to find competent health care providers.

E – Encourage self-help and other support strategies

Using effective self-help resources, engaging in peer support groups, and obtaining support from friends or family can all be extremely valuable parts of a well-developed personal recovery plan.

There are specific action plans provided with practical tips and strategies for using the ALGEE framework to manage each of the following specific situations:

  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
  • Non-suicidal self-injury
  • Panic attacks
  • Adults affected by traumatic events
  • Children affected by traumatic events
  • Acute psychosis
  • Medical emergency from alcohol abuse
  • Aggressive behavior

To learn more

While the class I attended addressed only adult mental health concerns, there is also a Youth Mental Health First Aid course designed to teach concerned adults how to help adolescents (ages 12-18) who are experiencing a mental health or addictions challenge or crisis. Topics covered include anxiety, depression, substance use, psychosis, disruptive behavior disorders (including ADHD), and eating disorders.

The US Mental Health First Aid website allows you to easily locate and register for an Adult or Youth class in your area. To find programs outside the US, a complete list of international sites is available.

Mental Health First Aid is a very worthwhile program to increase awareness about several mental health conditions and to provide a framework for action when faced with a potential or actual mental health crisis. Please consider learning more about this vitally important approach.

Here’s a question: Who do you know who could benefit from Mental Health First Aid training? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend. Thanks!

  • Tillie Bright

    We had here in British Columbia a course in Mental Health First Aid that was government funded and run through Canadian Mental Health Association. We got requests from banks, schools, big stores, and other places and we would go out and do the presentation much as iit is in your post. It was well received and we kept getting requests to present our material when the Government pulled the plug on the funding. I believe any workplace could benefit from such a program
    Tillie Bright,

  • Thanks for this great information! I had heard of this program before but never pursued it. Will definitely check out the website!

  • Thanks Janet! I think you’ll find the program very beneficial.

  • Tillie, I’m glad to hear your positive feedback. I’m sorry your funding was discontinued.

  • During the course of a 20+ year HR career, I experienced the impact and aftermath of 3 employee suicides (one of which was onsite), PTSD, violence in the workplace and more depression than I can possibly quantify. I firmly believe that improving mental health in the workplace would result in more people receiving treatment and in the reduction of the stigma associated with mental illness.

    I believe this so strongly that in 2016, I resigned from my corporate HR position so that I could focus on improving mental health in the workplace and deliver Mental Health First Aid training in the corporate environment. Any help you can bring, Dr. Susman, to raising awareness of the issue in the workplace is greatly appreciated.

    Thank you for the work you are doing.

  • Noma, I completely agree with you about the importance of mental health in the workplace. I’m glad to hear that you are active with MHFA training in the corporate world. Thanks so much for your feedback!

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