As the facilities manager for Grand Valley Catholic Outreach, Mark Lancaster comes in contact daily with the Grand Valley’s homeless, or formerly homeless. Many of them have mental health issues, from depression and schizophrenia to drug and alcohol abuse.
Thanks to a “first aid” class being offered in Grand Junction through a partnership between St. Mary’s Medical Center, Mesa County Valley School District 51 and Mind Springs Health, Lancaster now has a better handle on how to deal with mental-health problems that he encounters. The local mental health first aid classes are part of a National Council for Behavioral Health push to have more people trained to identify, understand and respond to mental health problems in a meaningful way.
Lancaster is now one of hundreds of Grand Valley residents, nearly 47,000 Coloradans, and more than a million Americans who have completed the class and been certified in mental health first aid.
“I am not a psychiatrist. I am not a psychologist. I am not a social worker,” Lancaster said. “But when I am in daily situations, like on my back repairing a sink, I find people are comfortable talking to me about things. This class really changed the way I interact with them.”
Mental Health First Aid training is the psychological equivalent of standard first aid courses. But instead of learning to recognize the signs of heart attacks and strokes and to administer CPR, those trained in mental health first aid learn how to support those in crisis until appropriate professional help is available. Mental Health First Aiders learn how to calm the agitated and to draw out those who have stopped communicating. Class participants have learned to recognize the signs that someone might be contemplating suicide.
Mental Health First Aid classes aren’t new in the Grand Valley: They were first offered in Grand Junction three years ago when School District 51 prevention services coordinator Cathy Ebel secured a federal grant to fund the training. The class was one way she found to tackle the Grand Valley’s suicide problem.
That grant ran out last year. That is when St. Mary’s became a partner in the effort to continue the mental health first aid classes. St. Mary’s is providing the venue for the eight-hour course, as well as a commitment to grow the classes.
“We are always looking for ways to address community needs outside the walls of the hospital,” said Cindy Ortiz, mission integration manager for St. Mary’s. “This aligns with our mission.”
There are two different classes. One is focused on adults and is held on odd-numbered months. The other is oriented toward those dealing with mental issues in youth. That class, held on even-numbered months, is open to adults as well as youth ages 16-18 who want to learn how to interact with their peers. Both classes teach how to respond to a variety of issues, such as helping someone through a panic attack, engaging with someone who might be suicidal or assisting someone who has overdosed.
The classes have already drawn social workers, faith leaders, health-care providers, college students and general members of the community who want to be able to handle mental health issues as well as help to decrease the high suicide rate in the West.
In the training, participants listen to lectures, watch videos, and role play scenarios they might encounter outside the class. They go home with a workbook and with a certification in mental health first aid that is good for three years.
“This training is not to be prepared to be talking someone down off a ledge. It is more about noticing when something is off,” said Sarah Robinson, program integration manager at Mesa County Public Health.
That noticing small behavioral cues has been a powerful takeaway from the class for Lancaster. He was a Denver criminal defense attorney for 20 years before he came to work for Grand Valley Catholic Outreach. He said he wishes he could have taken mental health first aid long ago because of how much it could have helped him on the job.
“I use it literally every day,” he said.
Lancaster has memorized the core acronym — ALGEE — that underpins the mental health first aid training.
ALGEE stands for:
■ Approach, assess and assist with any crisis
■ Listen and communicate nonjudgmentally
■ Give support and information
■ Encourage appropriate professional help
■ Encourage other supports.
In practical terms, Lancaster said he no longer overlooks clients at Catholic Outreach who are withdrawn. Because he now knows how to respond effectively, he more calmly faces those who are acting out in anger, paranoia or confusion. He listens in new ways to those who open up to him. He offers more help options because he has more knowledge about resources available in the Grand Valley.
Robinson said she has heard from other class participants that this training has helped to make them more comfortable talking about mental health issues. It has helped to remove the stigma of accessing mental health resources. It has helped participants to feel less helpless in the face of too many suicides and drug overdoses.
In 2017, there were 45 deaths by suicide in Mesa County.
Seventy percent of all suicide attempts went through the emergency room at St. Mary’s. At least five suicides affected hospital employees directly because they involved family members or friends.
“We have been asking ourselves how we can help our associates in the hospital to deal with this, as well as help the patients in crisis. We are looking at what kind of follow-up can we do with those patients,” Ortiz said.
In her beyond-the-walls mission, Ortiz said she and her cohorts in a suicide prevention advisory group are planning to involve even more of the community in the training. They hope to add classes tailored to different segments of the population, such as the aging, veterans, college students, first responders and faith leaders.
In an effort to make the classes more accessible, Ortiz said she is also planning to start breaking up some of the training sessions into two four-hour segments.
“We want to make it accessible for everyone. We want to have a certified community,” she said. “We want to make it very normal here for people to talk about mental health.”
For information, contact Cindy Ortiz at 298-2868 or email@example.com. Sign-up for the adult course can be done through Mind Springs Health by contacting Denyce Abbott at 683-7129 or DAbbott@MindSpringsHealth. org. Sign-up for youth course can be done through Cathy Ebel at cathy.ebel@51schools. org. For general information about Mental Health First Aid, go to the website www. mentalhealthfirstaid.org.