RICH KINSEY COLUMN: A FRESH PERSPECTIVE ON MENTAL HEALTH FIRST AID
If someone you know were having a rough time in life, would you have the courage to ask them if they were thinking about killing him or herself? Is it worth that nervous feeling in your gut to just ask the question? Are you worried that asking the question could potentially put the idea in a friend or loved one’s head?It will not put the idea in their head, and you must ask the question. Asking that tough question could save the life of a friend or loved one.
A week ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a class sponsored by the Ann Arbor Police Department Chaplains entitled “Mental Health First Aid.” The class was taught by Police Chaplain Don DesNoyers, who did an excellent job. Chaplain DesNoyers gave us a fresh perspective on mental illness and an action plan to help those in crisis.
Chaplain DesNoyers first gave us some staggering statistics about mental illness. Did you know a quarter of us have a diagnosable mental illness? Our textbook, “Mental Health First Aid USA,” also cited “a national survey of Americans found 19.6 percent of adults (18 or older) experienced a mental disorder in any one year.” That is huge and yet the stigma of mental illness pervades our society. That stigma attached to mental illness is the reason those afflicted do not seek the professional help they need.
In the last hour or so of the class Chaplain DesNoyers gave a good example. If a neighbor or friend was suddenly stricken with serious debilitating medical ailment—say they were suddenly paralyzed or had to take time off work for cancer treatment—would it not be natural to lend them a hand. Perhaps you would make them a casserole, mow their lawn or, as winter is just around the corner, shovel their walk for them.
If that same neighbor was diagnosed with a debilitating mental illness would you do the same thing or would you warn the kids to stay away from the crazy guy or gal next door?
In my own chosen profession there is a huge stigma attached to mental illness in our ranks. First of all, rest assured before they hand you a badge and gun to go forth and keep the community safe, you are investigated and psychologically evaluated to make sure you are mentally stable.
After that there really was not much after care until recent years when departments realized that some critical incident stress debriefings were beneficial for some of the many terrible things first responders encounter. These proactive programs have helped first responders, combat veterans and citizens who have been faced with tragedy and trauma.
When I started in police work 1982, I remember being told to be careful because cops are six times more likely to commit suicide than to be killed in the line of duty. Suicide in police work is sometimes referred to as “cop’s disease.” My non-scientific, anecdotal experience of cops I have known throughout the years, who have died by either means, is pretty close to that 6:1 ratio I was given so long ago.
The advice given us rookies was to exercise more, drink alcohol less and seek professional help only if you really need it. Seeking professional help — which is really the healthy and most beneficial thing — could end your career however or at least impair any upward or lateral mobility in the field of law enforcement.
In police work and the world in general, education is the key to removing the stigma attached to mental illness. The more we as a population understand that mental illness is just merely another illness which happens to affect the mind, the more we can both compassionately and effectively deal the problem.
Chaplain DesNoyers gave another example. Just as one afflicted with cardiovascular disease can die from a heart attack, one with a mental disorder can die—by suicide—from a “brain attack.”
What can we do in a psychological crisis to avoid tragedy? First and foremost provide the person afflicted with HOPE.
Just as in standard first aid, mental health first aid deals with the most life-threatening conditions and attempts to stabilize the patient until professional medical or mental health providers can take over.
Recall the “action plan” for standard first aid, to treat the most life threatening conditions is A-B-C: Airway, Breathing and Circulation.
The action plan for mental health first aid is A-L-G-E-E.
The “A” stands for “Assess for risk of suicide or harm.” This is where you must ask if a person is thinking of killing or hurting themselves or others. If so, what steps have they taken to do this—e.g purchased a gun, cut themselves or taken pills. You must also ascertain where the person is located and then CALL 9-1-1 and get the police responding right away.
The “L” stands for “Listen non-judgmentally” or, as Mr. DesNoyers so succinctly put it, “Shut up and listen” to the person in crisis. Listen, do not provide immediate simple answers, but instead try to understand their perspective.
The “G” stands for “Give reassurance and information.” Here you are helping the person realize they are not alone and their problem can be managed or even overcome. You give the person hope.
The first “E” stands for “Encourage appropriate professional help.” Give the person referrals in the form or telephone numbers or other sources of contact. You can always give them the United Way 2-1-1 Information Line that can give the person in need the proper agency and telephone number to call.
The “professionals” may include primary care physicians, mental health professionals, certified peer counselors, psychologists or psychiatrists. The first aid provider must understand that the person may not call immediately, but the person in crisis is at least given the “tools” if and or when they decide to get professional help.
The last “E” stands for “Encourage self-help and other support strategies.” This is encouragement designed to get the person to look into appropriate coping mechanisms like exercise, relaxation therapy or read about self-help options in published materials.
Whether you can remember the ALGEE acronym or not, just remember if you think someone is about to hurt or kill themselves or others call 9-1-1 and get them assistance right away.
If you are having thoughts of suicide or just think the world is closing in on you and there is no hope, please call someone. Whether it is 9-1-1, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255 or a trusted family member or friend, please reach out.
Thanks to the Ann Arbor Police Department, the Chaplains and especially Don — that was outstanding training. If you are interested in attending a Mental Health First Aid class contact Chaplain Don DesNoyers at: [email protected]
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.
Rich Kinsey is a retired Ann Arbor police detective sergeant who now writes his “Semper Cop” column about crime and safety for The Ann Arbor News.
A very interesting article from America. Canberra First Aid and Training although focusing on first aid would like to acknowledge that there is becoming a rapid growth in mental health problems in Australia. Please ask your friends and family how they are going and are they ok from time to time.
First Aid training in Canberra in the future will have a larger emphasis on mental health and wellbeing in the future so sign up to a course today in Canberra with Ryan and his great staff.