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Mental Health First Aid class offered for first time

MIDDLEBURY — When most people think of “first aid,” they think of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the Heimlich maneuver and other emergency measures to keep someone alive during a physical crisis.
Now the Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC) wants people to be able to dispense first aid to people suffering from what might be less overt, but very serious mental health ailments.
With that in mind, CSAC on Feb. 25 will launch the county’s first series of certification classes in “Mental Health First Aid,” skills to help citizens identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness in people in the community and provide them with some temporary aid and guidance on how to get professional help.
“There are a lot of people out there suffering,” said James Ashenfelter, a CSAC official, one of two (thus far) certified Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) trainers. He pointed to statistics suggesting that 26 percent of the U.S. population, in any given year, is dealing with a mental health crisis of some sort. Only 46 percent of those struggling with depression actually seek out help, he added.
Mental Health First Aid was originally created in Australia in 2001 under the auspices of the University of Melbourne. The program has since gone international, in such countries as China, Canada, the United Kingdom, Finland, Singapore and, beginning in 2008, the United States. President Barack Obama recently touted MHFA instruction as an important tool in the nation’s fight against gun violence, though Ashenfelter noted that people suffering with mental illness are statistically less likely to commit acts of violence than the general public.
Here’s how the program works.
The MHFA trainees pay $25 to go through a 12-hour MHFA program that teaches them a five-step action to assess a situation, select and a follow through with appropriate interventions, and help the individual find appropriate care to treat their mental health problem. Among the afflictions trainees are taught about: Depression, anxiety/trauma, psychosis and psychotic disorders, eating disorders, substance use disorders and self-injury. Symptoms to look out for include palpitations, chest pain, flushing, dizziness, shaking, sweating and hyperventilation.
Trainees also learn risk factors and warning signs of mental illness and about available mental health treatments. This in turn helps patients get the help they need more quickly and can remove the stigma often associated with mental illness, Ashenfelter noted.
Several trainees have already signed up for the first Addison County course of four, three-hour sessions, slated for Feb. 25-28 at CSAC’s headquarters in Middlebury’s Catamount Park off Exchange Street. While Ashenfelter is not at liberty to disclose names, the prospective trainees include people who work in area banking, clergy and hospice roles. Employers in the health care, academia, business and commercial/retail industries — which tend to see large numbers of people — have seen benefit in enrolling workers into the MHFA training program.
“It is a substantial commitment,” Ashenfelter said of the program.
The National Council of Behavioral Health Care wants the public to see the MHFA program become as popular and mainstream as CPR and regular first aid within the next 10 years. There are currently 2,500 MHFA instructors in the U.S. The Counseling Service currently has two instructors (Ashenfelter and Brian Ashley) and has two other employees who will receive training in March.
Ashenfelter and CSAC Executive Director Bob Thorn want to make sure that MHFA makes an impact in Addison County.
“The greatest obstacle to helping our friends, family and neighbors experiencing a mental health problem is often simply not knowing what to do or say,” Thorn said. “We want to help, but how? Mental Health First Aid gives us the confidence to try to help and to do so in an informed, helpful and safe manner.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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