Why We Need Mental Health First Aid Training

produced by Anna Jay; photographed by Eylul Aslan.
At a quiet urgent care center in Manhattan, a classroom of about 40 people broke off into groups to sketch drawings meant to answer one question: What might physical signs of anxiety look like? Several groups drew out what it might look like for someone to have difficulty breathing, dizziness, and headaches. And they talked through what mental distress might look like in other people. Recognizing those signs, after all, is the first step in being able to help someone.
The enlightening exercise is part of an eight-hour session meant to address something we don't discuss enough: mental health first aid.
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Mental health first aid is exactly what it sounds like — a response to a mental health emergency. And since last year, the National Council For Behavioral Health has organized trainings alongside Born This Way Foundation, a non-profit organization started by Lady Gaga and her mother that helps young people find mental health resources. Together, the organizations help people recognize when someone is in mental health distress — whether it's a panic attack, a depressive episode, or substance use challenges — and they teach them how to talk to someone who's going through a hard time.
Born This Way Foundation invited me to sit in on a training on behalf of Refinery29, and as someone who frequently writes about mental health, I wanted to learn everything I could. But, Shadille Estepan, a program associate at Born This Way Foundation, says these sessions aren't meant to turn you into a mental health professional. They can be helpful for anyone with a friend or family member going through a crisis, or anyone who just wants to know what to do when their friend posts a concerning Instagram.
"We’re constantly exposed to people who experience mental health concerns, and knowing the proper ways to go about helping them is one step towards getting them to seek professional help," Estepan says.

Whether you want to be a parent, a friend, or a romantic partner to someone, it's a valuable life skill.

Peter Gudaitis, NYDIS
During the training, we learned about symptoms and risk factors for mental health disorders in others, and went over the best ways to talk to someone who might be going through distress. One of the most biggest lessons of the day involved the acronym ALGEE, which stands for: Assess the person's risk of suicide or harm; listen non-judgmentally; give reassurance and information; encourage professional help; and encourage self-help and other support strategies. It's a convenient mnemonic device that helps you remember key steps you can take to reach out to someone and offer support.
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Clay Reed, an attendee who works in a New York City hotel, tells me that he felt the training could help him interact not only with guests, but also with anyone who might be having a hard time.
"If anxiety and stress isn’t part of the human condition, I don’t know what is," he says. "It’s good to think about it, bring it out in the open, and know as much as we can about it."
Reed is right: Anxiety and stress are very much a part of the human condition. And, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately one in five adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year — about 43.8 million people. Given that statistic, it's more than likely that you or someone you know will experience a mental illness at some point in your lifetime, and it's important to know how to help. And with Mental Health Awareness Month in May, there's no better time to be discussing how we can step up when someone is having a mental health problem.
"Mental health first aid is first aid," says Peter Gudaitis, an ex officio executive director at New York Disaster Interfaith Services (the organization leading this particular training). "Whether you want to be a parent, a friend, or a romantic partner to someone, it's a valuable life skill."
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.
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If you are experiencing depression and need support, please call the National Depressive/Manic-Depressive Association Hotline at 1-800-826-3632 or the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.
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