“We are the first line of defense in contact for individuals that walk into our office, sometimes in crisis but other times just needing general assistance to get them through an immediate situation,” said Martin Taylor, 42, a staff member in the Hunter Mill District Office. “So I think this class enables us to make better decisions that I think are good for the constituent, as well as good for the county.”
The mental health first-aid program is 12 hours of lectures, discussions and role-playing. As part of the program, participants learn, for instance, the physical symptoms of an anxiety disorder, and they listen to simulated auditory hallucinations, similar to those heard by people with schizophrenia.
In a particularly intense exercise, two participants try to have a conversation while a third person, working from a script, whispers a stream of negative ideas — “You are a failure. You are nothing. You can’t trust him. You can’t trust anyone.” — to one of them, simulating schizophrenia.
The course does not teach people how to diagnose or treat mental illness, but how to recognize the signs and symptoms and how to find appropriate help, instructor Samar Helmstutler said.
The classes, open to the general public, are booked through June.
Interest in such programs is growing nationally, and President Obama’s gun-safety proposals, introduced last month, include financing for mental health first aid for teachers.
The most recent Fairfax class, held two days last week, was requested by County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) and was attended by staff members from the offices of Bulova and the other supervisors.
“People with mental health problems will often find their way into our office, and for the most part we’re not professionals, so we’re not professionally trained to deal with mental illness,” Bulova said. “So a little bit of first aid and a little bit of knowledge as to what mental illnesses are and what are the best ways to handle and approach someone I think is very valuable to all of us.”
Jamie MacDonald, one of the instructors, said that Fairfax officials began looking into the first-aid program several years ago and that the idea gained more urgency after the 2011 attack by an Arizona gunman in which six people were killed and 13 others, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), were wounded.
MacDonald said high-profile mass shootings at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the ensuing public discussions about mental health care, have increased interest in the course.
“In spite of the fact that it really came about from a real tragedy in Sandy Hook . . . this information is needed regardless of that,” he said. “People just don’t have a clear understanding and also [don’t know] how to help.”
The mental health first-aid program began in Australia in 2001, and the first training sessions in the United States were held in February 2008, according to the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, one of the groups that oversees the program. There are about 2,500 certified instructors working in the 50 states, the District and Puerto Rico, and nearly 100,000 people have completed the program.
When the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board — the agency that coordinates services for people with mental illness — began offering the class in 2011, the first people to take it were members of the CSB’s administrative staff, MacDonald said.
“These are folks who are out at our front desks, who are in our lobbies and are often the first point of contact with our consumers, some of whom are seriously mentally ill or using substances, very distressed, involved with court systems, etcetera,” MacDonald said. “Many of them came and said, ‘I’ve been with the CSB for 10 years, and I wish I’d received this training way back at the very beginning.’ ”
About 500 people have been trained in mental health first aid by the Fairfax-Falls Church CSB, and about 350 of those people have been county employees.
In Virginia, interest in the training isn’t limited to Fairfax County. A bill pending in the Virginia legislature calls for local school boards to work with community service boards to have teachers and other school personnel take the course.
“As I talked to people in the mental health community, mental health first aid really rose to the top as a proven first-aid practice that can have a benefit to communities,” said Del. Rob Krupicka (D-Alexandria), who introduced the bill.
“Anything we can do to get folks who need services access to them, I think, is to the benefit of society as a whole, and mental health first aid has been proven to do that,” Krupicka said.
The course involves a lot of conversation between instructors and participants. Often, personal experiences are brought up and used to provide examples of how to apply the training.
“From time to time, we see that these topics really hit home for some of our folks,” Helmstutler said. “In fact, in the past, we’ve had folks that have shared their personal experience of battling with mental illness. That sort of adds more substance to what we already have with a heavy topic.”