Making Mental Health First Aid as Common as CPR

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Mental health problems are more common than heart disease, lung disease, and cancer combined—yet most people lack the awareness or resources to help someone struggling with mental health or substance abuse. The National Council for Behavioral Health adapted an awareness campaign to provide the American public with practical tools for mental health first aid.

The Challenge

One in five adults in the U.S. is expected to experience a mental illness this year, with the highest prevalence among young adults ages 18 to 25. More than 20 million Americans aged 12 and older experience a substance abuse disorder annually. Mental health problems are more common than heart disease, lung disease, and cancer combined, yet only 43 percent of people with a mental diagnosis receive treatment—either because it isn’t available or they can’t bring themselves to ask for help.

The impact on society is significant and widespread. Homelessness and incarceration are more prevalent among those with mental illness, and 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have at least one mental health condition. And the price of this growing epidemic? Depression and anxiety disorders alone cost the global economy approximately $1 trillion each year in lost productivity. And while most of us probably have some knowledge of how to identify and help someone who is experiencing a heart attack or stroke, it’s much less likely we have the awareness and resources to identify and help someone struggling with mental health or substance use.

The Approach

Mental Health First Aid was created in Australia in 2001 by Betty Kitchener, a nurse specializing in health education, and Tony Jorm, a respected mental health literacy professor. The National Council launched the Mental Health First Aid program in the United States in 2008 with the vision of making the training as common as CPR. The program aims to educate the public on the risk factors and warning signs for mental health and addiction problems, as well as strategies to help someone in both crisis and non-crisis situations and where to turn for more support. Going beyond information and tools for intervention, the program also teaches strategies for self-care.

The National Council grew the Mental Health First Aid program through customized courses for public safety, youth, higher education, military families, and rural audiences, including Spanish language courses. The program expanded through critical partnerships, including work with police departments. Beginning in 2012, Mental Health First Aid partnered with police departments around the nation, including New York City, Tucson and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. In 2016, the International Association of Chiefs of Police called on 100 percent of sworn officers and support staff to be trained in a course on public safety. The course was designed to help officers de-escalate incidents without compromising safety.

Educators are also a critical audience for this training. In 2013, Texas appropriated funds to support mental health training for educators across the state. That year, Mental Health First Aid became a requirement for all teachers in Texas, the Philadelphia County School District, and Chicago Public Schools. Additionally, the University of Missouri and the University of Puerto Rico became official partners of the program.

The National Council expanded the program through multiple public campaigns. In 2016, they partnered with close to 50 like-minded organizations and ambassadors in aggressive media and social media campaigns. The program achieved its goal of creating one million mental health first responders—just 15 months after the “Be 1 in a Million” campaign launched. The National Council garnered more than 10 million impressions with the hashtag #1in1m through the support of individuals whose lives had been touched by Mental Health First Aid, including instructors, trainees, partners, and individuals.

To encourage those trained in Mental Health First Aid to use their skills and make a difference in someone’s life, the National Council launched the #BeTheDifference campaign in 2017. The campaign’s videosblogsTwitter chats and more have driven hundreds of thousands of people to learn more about Mental Health First Aid. Major partners like Walgreens and Comedy Central have noted the #BeTheDifference campaign as one of the key reasons they approached the National Council for Behavioral Health.

The program also engaged high-profile partners from other corners. Beginning in 2017, Lady Gaga’s Born this Way Foundation and the National Council teamed up to train 150,000 people in Mental Health First Aid. Eventually, the partnership would focus on teen Mental Health First Aid, targeting eight schools and eventually expanding to 28 schools.

Outcomes

Since its launch, Mental Health First Aid has realized tremendous growth in the number of its graduates or “first aiders.” Teachers, first responders, veterans, neighbors, parents, friends, First Ladies, mayors—they are all Mental Health First Aiders who have made the commitment to help those struggling with mental illness and substance abuse. In 2019, Jason Cash, a fire/EMS professional, became the two millionth “first aider.” With more than two million trained individuals and 15,000 instructors, the National Council for Behavioral Health’s Mental Health First Aid program has helped to turn the tide on the growing—and alarming—mental health and substance abuse crises. The National Council continues to expand its target audiences with customized trainings for teenagers, older adults, and individuals in the workplace.

The program has also received support from legislators. In 2020, Congress appropriated $23 million in funding for Mental Health First Aid. This is the fourth time funds have been appropriated; the first was immediately following Sandy Hook when funds were aimed at training in elementary and secondary schools. The grants have since been expanded to include veterans groups, fire departments, college campuses and other community groups. In the same year, New Jersey appropriated $6 million to train all school personnel in the state.

The program continues to gain interest and support through media coverage. Relationships with respected publications and aggressive media outreach earned the program coverage in outlets like USA Today, Time, CNN, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. Through op-eds in local publications, the Mental Health First Aid program also reached smaller communities.

Impact

With one in five adults in the U.S. experiencing a mental health issue each year, it’s likely that all of us are affected by mental illness in some way. Since the launch of the Mental Health First Aid program, peer-reviewed studies from Australia and across the globe have shown that individuals who have gone through the training have learned effective techniques and methods to overcome mental illness, including: 

  • Growing their knowledge of the signs, symptoms and risk factors associated with mental illnesses and addictions.
  • Identifying multiple types of professional and self-help resources for individuals with a mental illness or addiction.
  • Increasing their confidence in and likelihood to help an individual in distress.
  • Improving their own personal mental wellness.

 

Additionally, one trial of 301 randomized participants found that those who trained in Mental Health First Aid have greater confidence in providing help to others, greater likelihood of advising people to seek professional help, improved concordance with health professionals about treatments, and decreased stigmatizing attitudes. For further evidence supporting Mental Health First Aid, please visit this online resource.

Quotes

“[Mental Health First Aid] really gives you the skills you need to identify—and ultimately help¬≠—someone in need.” —Michelle Obama, Former First Lady

“Once you train individuals, there is an impact that lasts beyond the grant period. It’s an investment in sustainable human capital.” —Jason Lacsamana, Program Officer for the Community Partnership Fund, St. Joseph Health

“So many people are out there wishing for something better, hoping that help will show up. That’s what Mental Health First Aid is—it connects people to care and ultimately helps them get to a better place.” —Tousha Paxton-Barnes, U.S. Army Veteran

References

National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Mental Health by the Numbers,” https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers

National Institute of Mental Health, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Trends in Substance Use Disorders Among Adults Aged 18 or Older,” https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_2790/ShortReport-2790.html