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Shooting in Tucson sparks interest in 'mental health first aid' courses

The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others on Jan. 8 in Tucson brought out an outpouring of emotion for the victims. Six people were killed, including a 9-year-old girl who went to the casual meet-and-greet because of her interest in politics. Giffords was among the wounded. The suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, was taken into custody at the scene.

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Monday, January 17, 2011; 9:05 PM

Shooting in Tucson sparks interest in 'mental health first aid' courses

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Learning how to identify and help people with mental illnesses should be a first aid skill as common as CPR, according to the Washington-based National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare (NCCBH).

Since 2008, the organization has offered 12-hour "mental health first aid" certification courses nationwide. The courses equip students with a five-step action plan for identifying individuals in crisis and knowing more about when and how to intervene.

Inquiries about the program have spiked since the Jan. 8 the shooting in Tucson that killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), according to NCCBH spokeswoman Meena Dayak. While the tragedy illuminates the need for mental health first aid, it could also contribute to the stigma surrounding mental illness, Dayak says.

"Automatically, people jump to the conclusion that [alleged gunman Jared Loughner] did this violent act because of mental illness," Dayak says. "The truth is that someone with mental illness is no more likely to be violent than someone like me."

Dayak added that "certainly it seems like he would have benefited from seeing a mental health professional."

Students learn how to respond to "psychiatric emergencies," which aren't usually violent, such as a panic attack on an airplane or someone with bipolar disorder acting dangerously during a manic episode.

About 12,000 people have taken the course in the last two years. They include law enforcement officials, community leaders, teachers and family members of people with mental illness. The program started a decade ago in Australia and was brought to the United States by the NCCBH in partnership with the Maryland and Missouri state governments.

The next course in the Washington area starts Feb. 23; details are available at www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

- Rachel Saslow

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