Advocates Worry Mental Health First Aid Skirts Serious Mental Illness

Advocates for people with severe mental illness say the mental health training doesn’t address the most dire needs.

By Kimberly Leonard| Staff Writer Sept. 12, 2016

Original Article Published on

A bill that would expand a program aimed at training ordinary people to recognize and intercede when they see signs of mental health issues in others is raising concerns among critics who say it takes the focus away from millions of Americans with serious mental illnesses who are unable to get medical care.

The eight-hour first-aid course, which sponsors hope to make as common as CPR training, provides trainees with information about how to listen to a loved one or to a stranger and to assess their risks for suicide or whether they are struggling with an addiction. Trainees also receive information to share about resources in the community, including doctors and social workers, that they can make people aware of.

Run by the National Council for Behavioral Health, a nonprofit comprised of mental health and addiction treatment groups, and the Missouri Department of Mental Health, the first-aid trainings in recent years have received $15 million in federal funding. More than 600,000 Americans, including first lady Michelle Obama, have taken the course.

Federal funding at this time is specifically allocated to train people who interact with youths because it was rolled out as part of President Barack Obama’s response to gun violence following the elementary school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.

Members of Congress and the National Council for Behavioral Health are hoping the program can reach even more people and are backing the Mental Health First Aid Act, introduced by Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan. and Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., which would allow for its expansion. Introductory statements on the bill began in subcommittee Monday.

But advocates for people with serious mental illness are concerned that this type of legislation draws limited resources away from the 3.4 million people with untreated mental illness who need higher levels of care – and who also have the hardest time getting it. They point to cases of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, in which people often become homeless or incarcerated and do not know that they are having delusions. Even when referred for services, they are unable to get them because not enough psychiatrists or hospitals are available. The training program, they say, is geared mostly toward people who want to assist less-severe mental health cases in which people are more likely to acknowledge they need help.

“Parents of the seriously mentally ill beg for treatment and cannot get it,” says DJ Jaffe, executive director of, who called mental health first aid a “sideshow” not aimed at serious mental illness.