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Youth Mental Health First Aid trains adults working with middle and high school students to recognize warning signs

Photo Credit: JONATHAN HOUSE - Youth Mental Health First Aid instructor Karen Carlin teaches a class in the method to some of the 500 people Clackamas County hopes to train in the next year. Quick. What do you do?

Your sister is cooking and cuts a deep gouge in her arm on accident. If you’re like many people, you’ve been trained in First Aid: You assess the situation, get someone to call for professional help and start patching her up with a nearby kit as best you can.

But wait. What if you are on Facebook and see your sister threaten to slit her wrist on purpose? What do you do then?

The answer, says Clackamas County Mental Health First Aid Trainers Susie Schenk and Karen Carlin, shouldn’t be that much different.

“This is very similar to physical first aid,” Schenk says, outlining a process that administers help to someone in crisis with the intention of getting them to a professional as soon as possible.

As part of a recent $200,000 state grant from Oregon Healthy Teens, Clackamas County’s Behavioral Health Division of Health, Housing and Human Services aims to train 500 adults who work with young people in the Youth Mental Health First Aid method before June 2015. That figure represents about 40 percent of Clackamas County schools staff who work with middle and high school students, says program coordinator Nina Danielsen.

“Ideally, we want to bring the training to as many school communities as possible,” Danielsen says.

In anticipation of an Aug. 27 kickoff party in Oregon City, the Be the ONE campaign — so named because it takes just one person to intervene — has already trained a quarter of its goal, about 143 people.

Allyn Bradley, who works for Clackamas Women Services, took the eight-hour training Aug. 21 and says he definitely thought the information would come in handy.

“It wasn’t really about diagnosing. It was more like being the in-between,” Bradley says. “It gave me a lot of tools.”

Margaret Engle, a substitute instructional assistant for Clackamas School District, works with all ages of students. Engle says she will be urging her colleagues to take the training.

“I think everyone in the school district could benefit,” she said. “It’s very applicable.”

Her husband, Robert Engle, who is also a substitute instructional assistant, says he learned that the most important things are to be attentive to students, be compassionate about their problems and remain calm.

“Don’t exacerbate it.”

Not so scary

Carlin says if she had her way, mental health first aid would be as standard and de-stigmatized as physical first aid.

“I would love this to be a core competency for human beings,” says Carlin, who adds that when mass CPR training first came out in the 1970s people were unsure of it, but now it is standard training for many professions. “It would be nice if this (Mental Health First Aid) were just regular.”

Mental Health First Aid USA reports more than 135,000 people across the nation have taken the training from more than 4,000 trainers. In Oregon, those trained represent less than one-tenth of 1 percent.

Danielsen says she hopes to change that with the Be the ONE campaign.

Mental Health First Aid USA is an evidence-based program adapted in 2008 from an Australian program launched seven years earlier.

At its core is training to recognize and identify mental health issues, along with a five-step action plan. The acronym ALGEE stands for:

• Assess for risk of suicide or harm

• Listen non-judgementally

• Give reassurance and information

• Encourage appropriate professional help

• Encourage self-help and other supports

Following a rash of mass shootings in 2013, the training program got a boost from President Barack Obama who used it as a cornerstone in his response. The Mental Health First Aid Act of 2013 authorized $20 million in funding for the program.

But Carlin says it would be a mistake to equate mental illness with violence.

“People with mental health conditions are actually more in danger from being harmed (by themselves or others) than harming other people,” Carlin says, adding that people with mental illness almost by definition don’t have the skill set and organization needed to commit mass violence.

Even so, the Centerstone mental health clinic where Carlin and Schenk both work has seen fallout from mass shootings. The walk-in crisis center on Southeast 82nd Avenue in Happy Valley had been open only a few months when people started running by its front windows, trying to escape the December 2012 Clackamas Town Center shooting.

A bright spot on that dark day, says Carlin, was when people who had already taken the adult version of Mental Health First Aid told her: “It helps to know that I can do something in times like this.”

Carlin says she is proud of demystifying mental illness for so many people. Often when she tells people that she’s worked with mental illnesses every day for 25 years, she usually gets a cringe in response.

“People say: ‘Oh my God, that sounds so scary,’ ” Carlin says. “It really isn’t. It really is just people.”

By Shasta Kearns Moore
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