Mental Health First Aid Adds Value in Underserved Communities
by Deidra Dain
Finding evidence-based tools and research that are culturally relevant to implement in underserved communities can significantly enhance the chances that people and their families will seek healthcare services—especially those for mental health and substance use. Moreover, as described in the September 2015 issue of Minority Fellowship Enews, peer staff who reflect the cultural, spiritual, and social diversity of service users can establish trust, address stigma-related issues (for the person receiving services and for other care providers), explain and navigate available services, and act as a liaison between the service user and the care team.
Mental Health First Aid is an example of one such research-based program that can help a community improve its access to much-needed services while enhancing the health literacy of the individual, family, and community.
What Is Mental Health First Aid?
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a public education program designed to help people identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use. The program is geared toward people with mental health and addictions issues and their parents and family members; first responders; faith leaders; health, human services, and social workers; employers and business leaders; college and university staff and faculty; law enforcement and public safety officials; and the general public. During the 8-hour in-person training (available in both English and Spanish), participants learn a five-step action plan for reaching out to a person in crisis and connecting that individual with professional, peer, or other help.
Created in Australia in 2001, MHFA is now available in 23 countries worldwide. More than 1 million people have completed the training. In 2008 the National Council for Behavioral Health, Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Missouri Department of Mental Health began leading the rollout of MHFA in the United States. This process has involved organizing instructor-training sessions, providing technical assistance to instructors, and adapting the program manual and materials for U.S. audiences. In addition to assisting with program development and support in the United States, this tri-agency collaborative works with other MHFA programs across the globe to share best practices and evaluation.
Since MHFA’s introduction in America, approximately 480,000 “First Aiders” have been trained, and 8,700 instructors have been certified.
Youth Mental Health First Aid
According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, the Youth Mental Health First Aid version of the MHFA program is primarily designed for adults 18 and older, including family members, caregivers, school staff, and health and human services workers, who work with people ages 12–25. It’s also appropriate as a peer support program for older adolescents. Topics covered in the manual include anxiety, depression, substance use, disorders in which psychosis may occur, disruptive behavior disorders (such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and eating disorders.
Reaching Diverse and Underserved Populations
MHFA can be especially useful for practitioners where resources are limited and access is compromised, often because of reduced health literacy, fear of discrimination, and lack of community connections.
Participants who complete MHFA—often in organizational settings such as Chambers of Commerce, professional associations, churches, hospitals, nursing homes, Rotary Clubs, schools, and parent organizations—add another layer of support to the behavioral healthcare providers who are frequently stretched for time and financial resources. Trained First Aiders serve as skilled liaisons who can develop relationships across the community, thereby providing opportunities to encourage and strengthen hopeful and non-threatening approaches to delivering healthcare locally.
For MFP Fellows who enter communities with the goal of improving health disparities, MHFA can be a valuable tool in practice and professional development. In addition to partnering with local First Aiders and certified MHFA instructors to increase help-seeking and reduce stigma, MFP Fellows can enrich their clinical capabilities by enrolling in the training. With such broad application of MHFA’s benefits, there are potential positive outcomes for practitioners and community members alike.