Englewood, Colo. (Oct 1, 2010) — Using a rolled-up sheet of paper as a makeshift megaphone, Monica Lujan holds one end near Sylvia Ramey’s ear and whispers: “Don’t listen to him. Don’t trust him. He’s out to get you.” Lujan continues her incessant barrage, repeating these and similar negative messages for only Ramey to hear.
Almost immediately, Ramey’s wide smile, directed at a fellow workshop member with whom she has been chatting, begins to fade. Her once-lively side of a conversation with him, complete with grins and hand gestures, becomes clipped, dull. Her hand gestures stop, and her eyes twitch, as her irritation from the relentless voice increasingly shows.
During the short hearing-voices exercise, focused on teaching people how people with this psychiatric symptom feel, participants were told to ignore the whispers and carry on their conversations unabated. It was one small part in a groundbreaking workshop on Mental Health First Aid held recently by the Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network. More workshops are planned, as the non-profit organization joins a growing, nationwide effort aimed at teaching the public that mental illnesses are real, treatable, and amenable to first aid.
Based on clinical research and promoted by the National Council for Community Behavioural Healthcare, the workshop teaches participants to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance-use disorders. In the 12-hour workshop, delivered in either two or four sessions, many psychiatric disorders, including statistics, symptoms, and myths surrounding it, are covered.
“The hearing-voices exercise is powerful,” said instructor Julie Hoffman, adding that the entire, interactive program is well thought out and full of compelling exercises and information. “Every time I do this training, I see light-bulbs go off. People say things like: ‘Wow, I didn’t know that. I didn’t understand that. Now I can relate to my brother better,’” said Hoffman, a case manager at Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network. “If we can reach people and educate them, we can make a big difference in helping people with mental illness and emotional challenges.”
Many of the recent workshop-goers, who ranged from youth basketball coaches and education administrators to sexual-abuse counselors, said the statistics were even more surprising than the exercise in empathy.
In any given year, more than one-quarter of the adult population, or about 57 million Americans, lives with a diagnosable mental-health disorder, said Bock, a licensed professional counselor. And only one percent of that large number suffers from the most-publicized, often-sensationalized psychotic disorder called schizophrenia, in which one of the symptoms can be hearing voices, she said.
Much as medical first-aid programs are focused on teaching people to identify and respond to physical life-threatening situations, Mental Health First Aid teaches people to recognize and respond to emotional and psychiatric crises in other people. The workshop also helps to dispel common myths and misperceptions surrounding mental illness, Bock said.
“For instance, many people think mentioning suicide will put the idea into someone’s mind and should be taboo, or that if someone talks about suicide, then they aren’t serious about it,” she said. “Both are dangerously false.” Participants learn how to discuss suicide with a depressed person – an act that could in itself prevent a tragedy. And they learn how to provide initial help to a person showing symptoms of mental illness or in a mental health crisis, such as severe depression or psychosis, until appropriate professional or other help can be arranged.
“I’m learning tools that I can apply to everyday situations,” said Roosevelt Leslie, a wellness liaison with Behavioural HealthCare, Inc. On the job, depression and anxiety are often coupled with his target issues, such as weight, fitness, nutrition and smoking cessation. And his new skills even translate to home life, said the father of two. “We’re learning how to listen without being judgmental, and you can use that in any relationship, including with kids and spouses.”
Ramey, a senior administrative clerk with Head Start, hopes her new knowledge will help her communicate with her daughter through the often angst-filled teenage years, and help her raise awareness about mental-illness among parents and teachers on the job.
The Mental Health First Aid concept originated in Australia 10 years ago, and is rapidly expanding in the United States and other countries. In other states, some school districts and criminal-justice systems are mandating the workshop for employees.
“We think this will be huge,” Bock said of the nationwide effort to make mental-health first aid as common as medical first aid. Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network has already held workshops with professional groups, such as criminal-justice workers, and plans to expand to groups community-wide.
“Knowing mental-health first aid is just as important as knowing CPR,” Bock said. “It can reduce stigma, because you fear what you don’t understand, and lead people to help fellow community members, rather than run away. It can prevent many crises and save lives,” she said.
The next Mental Health First Aid sessions are scheduled for February and April 2011. For more information and to register for a workshop at the cost of $25, contact Arapahoe Douglas Mental Health Network at 303 779 9676.
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