How you can be trained to recognize signs of mental health crises and help

By Marjorie Cortez, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As inner-city service missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Don and Julie Stewart's assignment to the Rio Grande Branch near many of the city's homeless services providers carried a steep learning curve.

"We're constantly dealing with mental illness and not knowing how to deal with it, how to handle it, how to recognize it or the right things to do or the wrong things," Don Stewart said.

To help inform and guide their efforts, the Stewarts are enrolled in a Mental Health First Aid class where they are learning to recognize signs of mental health crises and suicide and to develop an action plan to help someone in crisis.

The Stewarts say the training is so valuable, they've enrolled in the eight-hour class for a second time.

"This class was a game changer for us. It was like, 'OK help us understand,' because we were not addressing the mental heath issues. We were, 'Let's get you back to work. Let's get you housed. Let's get you out of the shelter,' and people were just coming right back to the shelter," Julie Stewart said.

The training is provided free of charge in a partnership between The Speedy Foundation, which was formed in honor of three-time Olympian Jeret "Speedy" Peterson, who died by suicide in July 2011, and Optum, which manages Salt Lake County's mental health and substance use services under contract with the county's Division of Behavioral Health Services.

Julie Hardle, manager of recovery and resiliency forOptum Salt Lake County, said the Mental Health First Aid teaches "what do you do when you come in contact with a person who is experiencing an emotional or mental health crisis. There's some very basic steps to ensure that person gets to a place where their situation can be addressed."

The classes teach the ALGEE Action plan, an acronym for assessing risk of suicide or harm; listening in a nonjudgemental fashion; giving reassurance and information; encouraging appropriate professional help; and encouraging self-help and other strategies.

"It provides them a lot of reassurance they can do something and they know what do to," Hardle said.

Graduates of the class learn about community resources that can help people experiencing mental health crises. There is also some role playing so students learn how to talk to people in crisis.

Many people find they put the skills they have learned to use in their service efforts and in their own circles of friends and family far more often than skills learned in medical first aid training, Hardle said.

"The likelihood you're going to come across someone who's experiencing some kind of emotional or mental health crisis is much higher than you're going to come across someone that's experiencing a physical health crisis just because of the prevalence of mental illness in our society," she said.

This is especially true for inner-city missionaries who often encounter people who are homeless and may also be struggling with addiction, mental health issues and a sense of hopelessness, Hardle said.

"They work with people who are on the edge, people who are on the precipice," she said.

Katie Flood, who serves on the board of directors of the Speedy Foundation, which works to support mental health, prevent suicide and encourage conversations to end the stigma, said the training is available for free.

Peterson, a silver medalist in freestyle aerials, was a close friend to Flood's brother who was also an Olympic skier.

The classes provide a wealth of information about mental health, mental illnesses and community resources, she said.

Perhaps more important, Mental Health First Aid teaches people how to have difficult conversations "to one, be brave to ask the questions that people don't want to talk about, and how to ask them when someone is truly in a state of crisis."

Flood said she is passionate about helping others because help is available.

"I want to be a voice of hope and recovery. There's help. There's amazing support systems out there. We just don't know where they are right now," she said.

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For information on upcoming classes, contact Julie Hardle at julie.hardle@optum.com or call 801-982-3217.

For immediate assistance with a mental health crisis, call the 24-hour Salt Lake County Crisis Line at 801-587-3000.