Mental health first aid course teaches warning signs - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Mental health first aid course teaches warning signs

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Many people are trained in CPR, the Heimlich maneuver and other first-responder techniques, and a growing number of mental health advocates are trying to add mental health first aid to that list.

On Tuesday, nearly three dozen people gathered at the Dubuque County Emergency Responder Training Facility to attend a free, two-day training course to become mental health first-responders.

As executive director of the Dubuque County Veterans Affairs Commission, Charlie Brimeyer has seen many lives torn apart by post traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses.

"You don't want to live anymore," Brimeyer said, describing the effect PTSD can have on families. "You don't relate to the kids. Your anger comes out, it blasts out, it just tears the fabric of a relationship apart."

He and his staff are taking the class to become better at helping the many people with mental illnesses - veterans and non-veterans alike - who come through their doors.

"This is so important because it is helping our staff learn more about what to do, what we can do and what we can't do," Brimeyer said. "This is about first aid. We are not counselors, we are not psychiatrists or psychologists. We are usually the first line of people who see someone who is likely in crisis, and a lot of times it's due to their mental health issues."

People attending the class learned about signs of mental illnesses ranging from anxiety and depression to PTSD. They also problem-solved hypothetical mental health crisis situations using a five-step action plan called ALGEE:

1) Assess for risk of suicide or harm

2) Listen nonjudgmentally

3) Give reassurance and information

4) Encourage appropriate professional help

5) Encourage self-help and other support strategies

Stacy Wittrock co-taught the class. She's a program analyst with the Veterans Rural Health Resources Center.

"Mental Health First Aid is about educating the community about mental health in general: that it is an illness, that there is treatment, there's hope for recovery," Wittrock said. "It's to get educated individuals to be able to help someone get the appropriate professional care."

Mental health advocate Peggy Loveless co-taught the class with Wittrock. She said mental health first-responders can use the ALGEE five-step action plan to benefit an individual struggling with a mental illness as well as society.

"It really saves money if we can get people care at the beginning of their illness and not wait until it's so serious that we can't possibly ignore it or that bad things happen," Loveless said.

The average person wouldn't ignore somebody suffering from a heart attack, both she and Wittrock said, so people shouldn't shy away from helping those suffering from a mental illness.

"If we're able to get the community members to understand that this is an illness, just like a broken leg or diabetes, and that they need to, then, go see a doctor or help someone who is suffering from an illness like that get the appropriate professional care, we're doing the community as a whole a lot better," Wittrock said.

"It's not something that we should just back off and ignore and wait for them to 'snap out of it,' because that's not going to happen," Loveless said. "It's like saying, 'Oh, well, you can just take that broken leg and "snap out of it."' That's not going to happen."

To help convey the physicality of a mental illness, Loveless said she often refers to a mental health crisis or episode as a "brain attack."

Mental health advocates say the best way to help someone struggling with a mental illness is by offering that person support and a listening ear and by suggesting the person seek professional care.

The US Centers for Disease Control website has more information on mental health and illnesses here:

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