Trying to Make Mental Health First Aid as Familiar as CPR

January 4 at 9:00 AM

If someone suddenly collapsed and appeared to be having a heart attack, you wouldn’t just walk on by, right? You’d at least call 911. You’d likely stay with the person while the ambulance was coming. And if you were trained, you might even start CPR. Chances are that human decency would motivate you to do something.


So why is it that when we see obvious signs of mental or emotional crisis in a friend, colleague or even a casual acquaintance, our first reaction is to withdraw? We typically consider behavioral health issues too personal for our intervention, out of bounds for anyone but a family member or a very close friend.

That pretty much defines the challenge facing the National Council on Behavioral Health, which is scheduled to announce Monday that it will train another 500,000 people in its Mental Health First Aid course. The goal of the eight-hour session is to help people recognize when someone is suffering from a mental health or substance abuse disorder and to encourage intervention.

“The truth of the matter is that you are more likely to encounter someone who is experiencing a behavioral health condition or crisis” than someone facing a physical emergency, said Laira Roth, the council’s project manager for the first aid course. Every year, the organization notes, one in four Americans will suffer from a mental illness or addiction.

Half a million people across the country already have taken the training, including First Lady Michelle Obama. I’m partially trained, having attended several hours of a session last month. It was enough for me to get the gist of the course.

“The biggest message…is that an individual has the capacity to help,” said America Paredes, the instructor that day. Are you going to avert a mass shooting? Unlikely. Could you stop or postpone a suicide attempt? Definitely.