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Mental health first aid courses in demand

March 21, 2016
by Jill Sederstrom
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As the National Council for Behavioral Health makes a push for more Americans to receive mental health first aid training, experts also report an increasing demand for the specialized trainers who can provide the courses to communities and first responders.

In fact, in Behavioral Healthcare’s recent Policy Survey, which polled nearly 600 industry leaders, 55.1% of respondents report that they personally have completed such training, and 34.6% report that their organizations offer the training to others.

Mental health first aid training began in the United States as part of a small pilot program in 2008 before expanding across the country. Today, the National Council says 500,000 Americans have participated, and the council hopes to reach a goal of 1 million Americans trained by 2017 with its “Be 1 in a Million” campaign launched this year. An online tool offers a searchable database of training locations.

“It’s an audacious goal. Right now, about 800 people a day are being trained. We would need to double that this year to hit the goal at the start of 2017,” says Linda Rosenberg, president and chief executive officer of the National Council for Behavioral Health. “We may have to move the needle a little bit, but we think we can do it. We’re going to put everything behind it that we can.”

To conduct the mental health first aid courses, the National Council relies on certified trainers who offer the eight-hour course in local areas across the country. Rosenberg says she believes there are currently between 6,000 and 8,000 mental health first aid instructors, representing all 50 states.

Class demand grows

Ilana Presley and John Dornheim are two instructors who work as a team providing trainings for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Dallas. The pair began providing the trainings two years ago and say they’ve seen interest in the courses continue to grow.

“It’s probably tripled in the last year,” says Presley, who has a background in law enforcement.

They also provide crisis intervention training to police departments and sheriff departments, he says. Dornheim is a former president of both the Texas state chapter and Dallas chapter of NAMI and worked for 16 years in a psychiatric hospital.

“We look at mental health first aid as a companion piece for the non-criminal-justice folks, for people working with the homeless and people working with social services,” Dornheim says.

To become certified mental health first aid instructors, they took a 40-hour course where they learned the program’s curriculum and practiced teaching sections of the course with other trainers before teaching the public. Potential trainers are even given a written test at the end of the 40-hour training session to ensure quality, consistency and adherence to the curriculum.

“It was pretty intense class work,” Dornheim says.

Once fully certified, Dornheim and Presley began holding mental health first aid classes around the Dallas area—educating people who work with homeless shelters, Dallas area fire fighters, adult protective services staff, non-profit organizations and even a local county commissioner.

“The way people responded has just been amazing,” Dornheim says. “The people who are professionals who take the class say it’s a wonderful refresher for them. They realize some of the things they’ve forgotten that they learned in school 10 or 20 years ago. For the people who are new to this, it’s opened up a whole new concept for them.”

Presley says they market the trainings on the NAMI Dallas website and newsletter, but interest in the course has grown primarily by word of mouth.

“We can be pretty busy,” Presley says. “For the course itself, you have to teach three a year in order to keep certified, and we’ve bypassed that by far.”

Dornheim and Presley believe in the need for the course so strongly that they both volunteer their time—ultimately passing the savings on to course attendees. Most only pay for the educational materials.






Ramping up efforts

As the National Council for Behavioral Health ramps up its efforts to have more Americans complete a mental health first aid course, advocates continue to look for more instructors to lead the classes. The council has made a $1 million commitment to fund instructor scholarships, particularly for those who have experienced mental illness or substance abuse themselves or have family members who have struggled with the issues.

Grants are also available to instructors who are training people who work with some of the country’s most vulnerable populations, such as those who serve the homeless, foster care, child welfare agencies and women’s and family services. The National Council will also cut the cost of all the teaching materials in half in an effort to encourage more instructors and trainings.

“Our board is now committed to the ‘Be 1 in a Million’ campaign, and so they are committing resources around our being able to achieve the goal,” Rosenberg says.