Mental Health First Aid – CPR for the Mind

There were 43.4 million adults in the U.S. who experienced mental illness in 2015 (not including substance use disorders). This makes up 17.9 percent of the adult population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In other words, one in five American adults you know might have had, or might currently endure, a mental illness.

If this number—along with the enormous amounts of data you can easily find in reports from nonprofit organizations—if that doesn’t prove mental health is a serious issue, I don’t know what will. And yet, mental health issues still often sound like those spooky ghost stories children tell each other in their little tents made of blankets—they sound almost surreal. Our society has an interesting combination of people who simply do not believe in mental health and others who wish they had known more about it.

The Problem

At SCC, mental health, although it is a topic of discussion, hasn’t quite made the spotlight when compared with other issues. “I think that there could always be more (awareness),” SCC counselor Gwyn Hoffman-Robinson said. “I think that we’ve noticed that there is a lot of interest, these (mental health trainings) are filling up quickly and we have a lot of concerned and caring staff and faculty who consult with us … So I would say there is the desire there to learn more.”

Sheryl Copeland, another SCC counselor, said she believes that to “reduce stigma and raise awareness,” one big solution is to “talk about our mental health and our well-being like we talk about lots of other things that are just common in our culture.” She said that we need to understand “what depression is, what anxiety is … and what the resources are, so that when you encounter someone who shares with you that their well-being is impacted, you could help them get to the right resource.” In an effort to raise more awareness, Copeland and Hoffman-Robinson brought Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training to SCC. Most of us probably have heard of CPR, but first aid for mental health? Not so much.

The MHFA training is a cost-free, nine-hour program which provides you with enough information about mental health so that you could actually use it to help people, after which you will be qualified as a “mental health first aid-er.” So not only does it help you help other people, it also looks amazing on your resume. Copeland said the intended outcome of this training is for people “to have awareness around mental health problems and to be able to talk to (others) about the resources that are available. And most importantly, be able to assess for risk of suicide and harm and get that person the right support so that they can stay safe.”

The Solution

The nine-hour program was separated into two trainings, each four and a half hours long. I recently attended these two trainings, one on Oct. 6, and one on Oct. 13. The instructors, Copeland and Hoffman-Robinson, are mental health counselors at SCC and also two amazing people who made the training so much easier than it actually could have been. And though four and a half hours can seem overwhelming, time goes by extremely fast when you have to be “drinking out of the fire hose,” as Copeland said.

The instructors did a great job in preparing a welcoming, informative and comfortable environment for participants. At the beginning of the training, we each received a “Mental Health First Aid” handbook, some handouts that contained emergency scenarios for different types of mental illness, information about the counseling center and the number for the crisis line. There were snacks and water, stress balls, rubber bands, scratch paper in different colors, color markers and some napkins, all of which we could use freely.

“The content introduced in this training can be a little intense, and so we prepared things that could help deal with the possible stress level,” the instructors explained. They also made it clear that we could feel free to take breaks, stand up, walk around, or go get some fresh air whenever we needed. So, when exactly do we need mental health first aid? Think of it this way—when someone has been rescued from drowning, you give that person CPR. When someone has a cut, you pull out your first aid kit and stop the bleeding.

Basically, you’re giving the person in need enough help to get them out of the emergency situation, but you can’t cure them. And that applies for mental health too, except it’s more about communication and less about physical treatment. Hoffman-Robinson said the goal was to “assist someone in a mental crisis until they get professional help.” And to have the ability to do so, we needed to actually learn about the mental illnesses. Then came the flow of information.

The Training

We talked about the facts, the symptoms, the statistics and the stigma around depression and anxiety, suicidal thoughts and self-injury, panic attacks and more. We discussed scenarios in small groups and shared our thoughts with other groups. We talked about and identified what we should and should not do when assisting someone. We shared our own experiences and definitions for stress and anxiety. We watched video clips about people who have been through breakdowns and have struggled with mental illness. We did a lot of interactive activities like role playing and games. And all of it was so uncomfortable.

It was so uncomfortable because it was a way of noticing the elephant in the room. It was a way of telling us that, without our awareness and attention, problems originating from mental health that lurk from the shadows come and snatch the ones we love—or even ourselves—without a warning. Listening to the facts was the least uncomfortable part of it all. The scenarios from the handouts were not dramatic, they were more about that person at work who seems to not be able to focus, or that friend who has just lost a family member and is having a hard time coping. They were very real situations that we could face any day and fail to notice.

The videos we watched were about the side of some people that we don’t usually see, the invisible pain they have to go through. There were tears and long sighs over the loud silence in the room. The role playing — gosh, I feel uncomfortable just thinking about it. The role playing activities forced us to get out of our comfort zones. We had to ask questions we never ask, ranging from, “Is Mental Health First Aid CPR for the Mind there anything I could do to make you feel better?” to “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” and to do things we never do, like pretending to assist someone in a panic attack. It was a lot to take in.

I felt so uncomfortable, and yet so grateful. The thing about uncomfortable encounters is that they push you out of your boundaries and give you knowledge. This training gave me great awareness and insight into the issue of mental health. It also gave me the confidence to step forward and offer someone a hand when I notice they need help. And my hope is that more people will get involved in this. If you want to attend the Mental Health First Aid training and help raise awareness, there will be another on-campus training on Nov. 17 and Dec. 1.

The Counseling Center will send out emails to all students and put up posters around campus. You can also learn more about Mental Health First Aid through their website at https://www. For more information about the training, the Counseling Center, or what you can do to help someone on or off campus, please call the Counseling Center at 206-546-4594 or go see them on campus in Room 5245 in the FOSS Building. You can also contact Sheryl Copeland at [email protected]

If you are experiencing an emergency and need support or know someone who needs help, please contact the King County Crisis Line at 866-427-4747.

Khanh Dinh