Mental health classes teach value of early intervention

WASHINGTON — The mental health first-aid program was first researched and launched in Australia, and has been in the U.S. for the last four to five years — and the classes are even available in the D.C. area.

Rhonda Williams, a licensed clinical social worker, is one of the mental health first-aid instructors for the City of Alexandria. She says the city has been offering the mental health first-aid classes for about two years.

The idea behind the mental health first-aid classes is to be able to help someone before they have a full-blown crisis. It’s another tool in the proverbial tool box.

“The goal of mental health first-aid is to provide prevention and early intervention,” Williams says. The classes are offered to the public for free around the region.

The eight-hour course does not prepare a person to provide treatment or to diagnose a person with mental health issues. But rather, it teaches them how to recognize the early warning signs, and Williams says it teaches the student how to talk to someone, such as a family member or co-worker, about getting help.

She says the most prevalent mental issues are depression and anxiety, with many patients not being able to recognize their symptoms. She says that’s where the “mental health first-aiders” come in.

“They are trained on how to access resources and encourage a person on what could be done earlier and to notice symptoms earlier,” she says.

The training helps the student identify the signs of mental illness, understand them and to respond to them. Again, she says it is all about early intervention.

Williams says the feedback she has gotten on the program is that it helps break through the myth, the mystery and the fear of mental illness.

She says those taking the class get a better understanding of what mental illness really means. And, she says the disorders that people find more frightening, such as schizophrenia, are really less than a one-half of 1 percent of the general population.

Williams says mental illness impacts one-in-five people during their lifetime.

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