If you and a friend get in an accident and your friend breaks their leg, you know to call 911 for help. But when people struggle with mental illness, outward signs of distress aren’t always recognizable, and many people don’t know how to help their friends and family members who are struggling with their mental health. But fortunately, you can learn how to help by getting mental health first aid certified. Much like getting first aid certified, or taking a five-hour for a driver’s license, you can take a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course to learn how to help people with a wide range of mental illnesses, including mood disorders like depression or anxiety, substance abuse, or even trauma.
“It’s important for people to have the knowledge to help people,” Elyse Fox, founder of Sad Girls Club, tells Bustle. “When there’s a mental illness involved it’s easy to ignore because people don’t know how to react ... we need more ways to help them.”
Though you won't become an expert psychologist in one day, you will learn about the risk factors and warning signs for mental illness and substance abuse, strategies for helping those in crises and non-crisis situations, and where to refer people for further treatment.
The Mental Health First Aid five-step action plan lists assessing for risk of suicide or harm, listening non-judgmentally, giving reassurance and information, encouraging appropriate professional help, and encouraging self-help and other support strategies, according to MHFA's website. These steps are meant to diffuse crisis situations, and encourage others to seek further help.
“It’s something we’re all going to experience, whether we’re in a mental health profession or not,” Fox says. “We’re all human beings, and we all have mental health. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you’re in, you’re going to come across somebody who has a mental health issue and helping in a way that non-judgmental and non-shaming is really important.”
Mental Health First Aid was founded in Australia in 2000 to provide a concrete strategy to help others with mental illness, destigmatize mental illness, and encourage seeking further help. Since its founding, MHFA has continued to develop its signature action plan while seeking input and perspective from people with mental illnesses, and has expanded programs to 22 countries. Courses are eight hours long, and can be taken in one day or two. You can find a MHFA course online, bring friends, snacks, and make a self-care day of it. Anyone can get certified, and there are even designated MHFA courses for veterans, first responders, rural communities, and teenagers.
Having MHFA classes focusing on adolescents is crucial as teens and young adults are increasingly likely to suffer from mental illness. Approximately one in five teens will suffer from mental illness in their life, and about half of mental illnesses develop by age 14, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). When teens reach out to their peers, it can be particularly difficult to respond appropriately if you don't have much knowledge about mental health.
“I think it’s really encouraging [seeing classes geared toward teens] because young people are turning to each other for help,” Erika Martinez, licensed psychologist, tells Bustle. “That youngster is equally as inexperienced, so teaching kids to have more information, to have a better sense of what to do when there is a crisis, how to help their friends in distress, I think it’s really, really positive.”
Teaching mental health in schools can help detect mental illness and get teenagers treatment at an earlier age, according to NAMI. Although millennials and Gen Z are more open when discussing mental health, Martinez says that there can be drawbacks in teaching mental health when teachers are not properly trained.
“There’s definitely more dialogue than there has been in the past, but because teachers are not mental health professionals, they can react to a situation or educate from a place of fear,” Martinez says. “It’s very reactionary, and that often will make kids feel like they can’t open up.”
It's common to have reactionary responses when discussing mental health, and this is why it's vital to have proper training. Peer-reviewed studies in Australia show that both those administering mental health first aid and those receiving aid benefit from knowing about symptoms and risk factors for mental illness, and referrals for further treatment. The MHFA program is a positive step toward destigmatizing mental illness, but unfortunately you still have to be actively seeking help for it to be accessible.
"I don't understand why it isn't taught in schools," Martinez says. "If you have a home [economics] class teaching kids how to bake cookies, you should have a class to teach kids how to deal with their mental health."
The conversation around mental health has come a long way in a short period of time, thanks in part to celebrities like Demi Lovato, Kehlani, and even former first lady Michelle Obama, who have used their platforms to destigmatize mental illness. Mental Health First Aid can help further the conversation by teaching those concrete skills you never learned in high school.
“I definitely see a change in this generation, I definitely see in them a different attitude towards mental health, it's not as taboo" Martinez says. "It's really beautiful that they approach it with this vulnerability, and they don't hide it, and there's a willingness to talk about it. I’m definitely heartened by that, and I think we're moving in the right direction.”