Mental health crisis training grows in Detroit area

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

How can you tell if somebody is experiencing a mental health crisis, and what you can do to help?

Those questions are the topic of an eight-hour Mental Health First Aid course available in Metro Detroit and across the country. About 780,000 Americans — including 36,000 in Michigan — have received the training offered by Mental Health First Aid USA, according to the nonprofit’s website.

The training has grown worldwide since it was developed in Australia in 2001, along with the companion course on youth mental health first aid. About 11,600 first responders, educators, mental health professionals and lay people have become certified to teach the course in the United States.

“It could be for teachers, people in the community or even school resource officers,” said Bryan Gibb, director of public education with the National Council for Behavioral Health-Mental Aid First Aid USA. “We have a special curriculum for public safety staff and have trained 70,000 police and corrections officers.”

Chrystal Geiser, a school social worker with the Troy School District, attended a Youth Mental Health First Aid course offered recently by Oakland Schools, the country’s intermediate school district. About 20 teachers, counselors and paraprofessionals turned out for the training.

“I’m getting ideas of how to explain things in language that’s more understandable and comprehensible to teachers, paraprofessionals and parents,” she said.

Steffany Wilson, clinical analyst with Oakland County Community Mental Health, helped teach the class Geiser attended. Courses are available across the region, she noted.

“It’s a really full schedule,” Wilson said. “We’re looking at warning signs, and we talk about typical adolescent development and do some small group discussions around a case.”

The training is offered by universities, school districts, public safety departments and public health agencies, usually for free or a nominal fee.

At Oakland Schools, the group learned how teenage brain development, hormones and social pressures can put kids at risk. They examined case histories of kids to learn how to differentiate between normal teen angst and a mental health crisis that could involve an eating disorder or perhaps lead to a suicide attempt.

Perhaps most important, they learned how to get kids to open up about what they’re experiencing.

“You’re going to learn how to recognize the signs of someone who might be suicidal, but we’re not going to stop there,” said Gibb, of Mental Health First Aid USA. “We’re going to teach them how to talk in a way that is likely to get someone to open up, and what are the resources that are there in case someone is suicidal.

“The reality is that mental illness and substance abuse is common,” Gibb added. “... If people can add just a couple of skills, it really can save lives.”

Mental Health First Aid

■It’s an 8-hour course that gives people the skills to help someone who is developing a mental health or substance abuse problem or experiencing a mental health crisis.

■Mental Health First Aiders learn a single 5-step strategy that includes assessing risk, respectfully listening to and supporting the individual in crisis, and identifying appropriate professional help and other supports.

■For individuals in crisis, goal is to help provide support until appropriate professional help arrives.

■Visit to find a course

Source: Mental Health First Aid USA