‘First aid’ training focuses on mental health issues

By Rick Charmoli, Cadillac News

Chances are, you know someone with a mental health problem.

According to Northern Lake Community Mental Health, one in four Americans are dealing with some sort of mental health issue.

That means it could be you, a family member, friend or co-worker. With budgets at the state and national level being slashed, help is becoming harder to get.

While the shootings in Newtown, Conn., last month have sparked a lot of discussion about certain topics like gun control, as well as care for the mentally ill, the question remains, would you know what to do in the event of a mental health crisis or if you knew a person was having trouble and needed help?

“The lack of knowledge creates a sense of fear and stigma,” said Joanie Blamer, chief operations officer at Northern Lakes Community Mental Health. “Many people are unsure of what to do and how to help.”

Later this month, Northern Lakes will host a two-day workshop called Mental Health First Aid, which will help people learn the signs and symptoms of mental health problems, how to provide initial assistance and strategies to guide a person toward professional help.

The program is based on the same principles as a standard first aid course, Blamer said, so participants will be learning practical, hands-on skills. The program won’t train anyone to be a professional therapist but it will provide them with the tools they need to help someone in crisis until professional help can be arranged, much like treating a wound until an ambulance arrives.


In 2012, the Cadillac Wexford Transit Authority transported 130,000 passengers. CWTA Director Vance Edwards said for every 10 passengers served, roughly seven had some sort of disability. Of that 10, Edwards said three or four were dealing with some sort of mental impairment. Part of the reason that number is high — the CWTA has a transportation contract with Northern Lakes.

With that in mind, he said it is important that staff, and especially drivers, understand some of the issues people who ride the CWTA buses are dealing with when it comes to mental health. While the CWTA has its own training for drivers, Edwards also said they have utilized the Mental Health First Aid training.

“We don’t treat (passengers with mental disabilities) differently than anyone else, but it is good for us to recognize a disability so we can respond appropriately,” he said.

Cindy Fales is the project coordinator for CWTA, and she took the first aid training through Northern Lakes last fall. She said the training helps people keep a mental health crisis from escalating until help can arrive. Fales said part of the training the drivers receive is a visit to Club Cadillac. There they get to interact with some of the people who they will be driving and getting to know them before they ever set foot on a bus.

She added that there are a lot of misconceptions out there when it comes to mental illness, and this training is a great way to dispel them.

“There is a stigma out there that people with mental illness should be feared,” she said. “That is just not true. They are like everyone else with the same interests and sense of humor.”


During the workshop, Northern Lakes will train up to 30 people to improve mental health literacy. Anyone can take the Mental Health First Aid course — first responders, students, teachers, leaders of faith communities, human resources professionals, law enforcement personnel and anyone else who may be interested, regardless of profession.

Mental Health First Aid is a 12-hour training certification course that teaches a five-step action plan to assess a situation, select and implement interventions and secure appropriate care for the individual. The program introduces people to risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems, builds understanding of their impact and covers common treatments.

The training helps participants identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness such as depression, suicide, panic attacks, paranoia and psychotic episodes. Research has proved the program effective in improving trainees’ knowledge of mental disorders, increasing the amount of help provided to affected individuals and reducing stigma.

Mental Health First Aid was originally created in Australia in 2001 under the guidance of the University of Melbourne and is now taught internationally, with programs in countries such as the United Kingdom, China, Canada, Finland and Singapore.

For more information or to participate in the Mental Health First Aid training, visit www.northernlakescmh.org or call Beth Burke at 876-3249.