Mental Health First Aid…

Recently I took the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Mental Health First Aid course.

As with many of the courses I find myself in that are aimed at the general public who have no foreknowledge or real experience with the topic at hand, I found a lot of the material repetitive. This is not because I know everything (much as I might like to pretend sometimes), rather my recognition of the information taught by the course is borne of having worked in this field, dealing front-line with those who are experiencing issues with mental illness. As a result, I have a pretty good understanding of the basic first aid interventions required when someone is presenting a Mental Health concern (ie: assessing them for risk of harm, then being supportive while encouraging them to lean on their support networks like their therapists, family or friends). I’m not a psychologist, and I have zero claim to be a diagnostician; and apart from that one time I thought it would be interesting to take a look over the DSM IV, I haven’t got a clue about the myriad intricacies of diagnosis and treatment for most of what is found in that particular tome. What I do know however, is that Mental illness is serious. It’s real, and just because we cannot see it, does not mean it does not have an incredible impact on the youth we work with, our friends, our peers and our society as a whole.

Somewhere in the neightbourhood of ten years ago, when I first started walking down this career path, I was fortunate enough to be involved in some projects that were dealing with de-stigmatizing mental illness. The response from the general population then was underwhelming and concerning. The anti-stigma campaigners were standing at the base of a mountain of stereotypes and disinformation. At the time, it seemed that the daunting task was overwhelming and that nothing was going to change. I’m happy to report however, that I see things are shifting in a big way. Though it would be a far cry for me to suggest that mental illness is free of stigma, and that those who are working through their various illnesses are doing so with the support of our society, I would suggest that I am hearing a subtle shift that is turning into something greater. There is a momentum out there that is starting to fundamentally change the conversation about mental health and mental illness.

My recent experience at the Mental Health First Aid course is encouraging. There were individuals from all walks of life and all variants of experience in attendance. One participant was in the middle of dealing with her own Depression and Anxiety, while another had an intimate family relation with Schizophrenia. Beyond these two there were a couple of students, a future-phsych-nurse, an HR manager from a private company, a parent, a policy maker, a bartender, a personal support worker, a handful of consultants, an interested businesswoman and a friend. All of these people were interested in knowing more, and watching them do so was a huge moment of learning for me. Over the course of those two days, I discovered that:

1) The general population does not know much about mental illness.

Despite the major push of the last ten years, and the heightened profile that mental illness (in particular PTSD and Depression) have had of late (think: Bell Mobility’s Let’s Talk campaign, Robin Williams, Romeo Dallaire, the new film about Kurt Cobain and so on) there is not a lot of real, accurate information out there. The number of audible sighs and the concerned looks on the faces of those in the room when it was noted that 1 in 5 Canadians will deal with a mental health concern at some point in their lives is proof of this. As an aside, this number is based on those who seek treatment, suggesting that the statistics are undercutting the real story.  It is not hard to conclude that the numbers of Canadians that deal with mental health issues is in fact much, much greater.

2) The general population still carries great stigma about mental illness.

A number of participants stated openly that they have, or know someone close to them that has a mental illness. Despite this, several also shared initially that it is hard for them to see people who are struggling with illnesses (Depression and Anxiety in particular) as being “unwell.” I would like to think that the majority of my coursemates came around, but in practice I know that it can be difficult to rationally separate our emotions about a situation, with the emotions of that who is suffering from an illness.

3) Good people exist; they care and they want to help.

There are vast networks of support that exist (not just clinical) out there. Though not everyone can be brought through their mental illness by a group of cheery friends and family alone, having people on your team helps. Having people who are armed with knowledge, compassion, empathy and love is even better.

Not one of the 25 people that attended the course were forced to be there. Not one of them walked away without having learned something beneficial, and not one of them left without having had at least one pinnacle moment where they realized something big. For HR lady, she better understood how to approach the subject with both the staff that were dealing with mental health issues and the staff that were left to bear the brunt of the workload left by the individual who was on leave; for the policy maker, it was that she was finally understanding her daughter’s mood swings and behaviours; the parent knew more about how important it was to be involved in his daughter’s treatment; the woman that was dealing with depression and anxiety felt more supported and better equipped with knowledge and strategies on who to talk to, how to help herself and how to explain her illness to others. I left there with a few more facts and a lot more hope that the landscape is changing for the better.

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