If you’ve ever heard of CPR or the Heimlich maneuver, then you understand how anyone can use basic first aid measures to save lives! The same concept holds true with mental health first aid techniques, too. In fact, this is essentially the idea behind the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (previously the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline), a hotline staffed by volunteers who undergo training in suicide prevention, active listening, empathy, and self-care.

But in 2001—a few years before the first “suicide hotline” was introduced—a research team in Australia launched the Mental Health First Aid training program, designed to teach everyday citizens the basics of how to render aid to someone facing a mental health crisis. The project evolved into Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), a “national non-profit health promotion charity focused on training and research.” It has since grown into an international organization training and helping people around the globe.

Why is Mental Health First Aid Needed?

Like traditional first aid, mental health first aid is designed to offer immediate, on-the-spot support until the recipient can get further assistance from a suitable professional, as needed. But why the need for such services in the first place, when there are ~181,600 trained psychologists already working around the country?

To a large extent, it’s because many people who need mental health support never seek it out. Instead, they attempt to manage the issues on their own—often with the ill-advised aid of substances to which they may become addicted, leading to serious comorbidity problems.

Some people simply shun the notion that they need mental health help or they believe there is a social stigma attached to getting help. Of course, far too many people don’t seek treatment because they don’t have insurance to cover it and can’t afford to pay out of pocket.

Meanwhile, as noted by Johns Hopkins, “an estimated 26% of Americans ages 18 and older—about 1 in 4 adults—suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.” Left untreated, mental health issues can negatively impact sufferers, their loved ones, their coworkers, and even total strangers in the event of a serious public crisis. The odds of an incident being averted can be improved by having someone on the scene trained in MHFA, which is designed to address situations involving potential suicide, self-harm, panic attacks, and similar issues.  

What Is MHFA Training?

While anyone could technically learn mental health first aid techniques on their own, it’s highly recommended to go through a brief formal training program. But who needs this training? Frankly, almost any business could benefit from having a staff member or two who knows how to perform MHFA.

As the founding organization MHFA writes, Mental Health First Aiders are “Teachers, first responders, and veterans. They’re neighbors, parents, and friends. They’re people in recovery, and those supporting a loved one….[They’re] anyone who wants to make their community healthier, happier, and safer for all.”

The MHFA Curriculum

Per its website, the standard MHFA training curriculum covers these topics:

  • Depression and mood disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Trauma
  • Psychosis
  • Substance Use disorders

In addition, MHFA notes that students will learn how to apply mental health first aid in situations where a person is “experiencing panic attacks, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, nonsuicidal self-injury, acute psychosis, overdose or withdrawal from alcohol or drug use, or reaction to a traumatic event.”

How Effective is MHFA?

The MHFA organization posts numerous case studies aimed at demonstrating the effectiveness of mental health first aid in real-life scenarios around the country. An example is the University of California Santa Cruz’s requirement for its residential counselors to undergo the program. Follow-up surveys “found that there was an increase in students who self-identified as feeling more comfortable and more equipped to talk about mental health issues with people who are experiencing them.”

A recent example in the headlines comes from Boston, where Reading Memorial High School teamed up with local police to train students in mental health first aid techniques so they can “identify friends in need.” Indeed, law enforcement agencies around the nation are mandating that officers undergo MHFA training, in order to better de-escalate situations to which they are responding.

“We in law enforcement have to evolve with any topic to be able to better serve the community,” said Lt. Cory Brandl of the La Crosse Police Department in Wisconsin. “We recognize in any situation there may be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed so that we can fix the situation.”

Even former First Lady Michelle Obama is a strong proponent of MHFA. “The National Council for Behavioral Health will be training three million people in Mental Health First Aid,” Mrs. Obama stated to an audience of government and business leaders. “I went through some of this training a few weeks ago…and I saw just how useful it is. It really gives you the skills you need to identify—and ultimately help—someone in need. Because you never know when these kinds of skills might be useful.”