On July 16th, 2014, AFSP attended House and Senate briefings on the Mental Health First Aid Act. The event was sponsored by Rep. Ron Barber, Rep. Lynn Jenkins Senator Mark Begich, and Senator Kelly Ayotte.
Mental Health First Aid Act authorizes $20 million in grants to fund training programs around the country. The participants would be trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of common mental illnesses, de-escalating crisis situations safely, and initiating timely referral to mental health and substance use treatment resources available in the community.
Statistics have shown that each year, more than one in five Americans experiences a mental illness or substance use disorder. And, a lack of awareness can prevent people that need treatment to get proper care. Studies have shown that Mental Health First Aid increases help providers to others, increases guidance to professional help, and improves concordance with health professionals about treatment.
During the hearing, the panelists gave testimonies explaining how the Mental Health First Aid has been effective.
The panelists were as follow:
- Sergeant James Kirk, Tucson AZ Police Department who is retired now, explained how as a patrol officer in one of the area with highest concentration of mental ill individuals, he was only taught to take to jail a person that would break the law and there was nothing else. Whereas, thanks to the Mental Health First Aid training, he had the ability to recognize signs and symptoms as well as find available resources for the individuals. He also mentioned that “studies in Tucson showed that those diagnosed with a serious mental illness spent more than twice as long in the county jail for the same crime as those who did not suffer with a mental illness”. From this information, he noticed that three entities needed to work together: law enforcement, behavioral health providers and the criminal justice system. Finally, Sergeant Kirk ended his testimony saying that Mental Health First Aid is not like any other training they have had; it fills a huge gap by providing real strategies of what officers need to do in a crisis situation but also how to move that individual toward help.
- Jill Ramsey, Training Coordinator, University of Alaska, provided information related to the Mental Health First Aid in three main parts. He started explaining the need in Alaska. The citizens in Alaska face provider shortages, fragmented systems of care, and many mental health, suicide and substance related challenges. He added that “Alaska Primary Care Association has estimated that the time and expense related to managing an emergency healthcare issue in remote Alaska is comparable to a resident of Washington D.C. flying to Paris, for healthcare”. According to Mr. Ramsey, MHFA is an extraordinary cost effective tool to equip our communities to recognize signs of a developing crisis and skills to address it early and effectively. Some of MHFA effects specifically in the rural settings (where the resources for mental health care are limited) are very positive. He said that there was less criminalization of symptoms and behaviors, less arrests, and more treatment referrals, which obviously helps discerning the difference between a symptom of an illness and criminal or deliberate belligerence. Finally, he shared a story saying that police officers are now able to see a significant difference in the outcome of interventions because they are able to refer people to the health clinics rather than engaging the person in a fruitless argument over delusional content that would have typically escalated to violence or aggression.
- Lieutenant Joseph Coffey, Warwick Rhode Island Police Department, explained how although he started with skepticism towards this training, he quickly realized the potential for the training to help officers defuse crisis, promote mental health literacy, enable intervention, combat stigma, and connect people to care. He informed us on the fact that there are over eleven-hundred Rhode Island Public Safety Officers certified MHFA-Public Safety first aiders. Public Safety first aiders are communicating more frequently and effectively with the community and the mental health centers, as well as hospital medical staff. Lieutenant Coffey gave an example of a public safety officer that was confronted with a young man brandishing a knife and was able to intervene safely thanks to the MHFA-Public safety training. Finally, Lieutenant Coffey invited public safety heads to consider providing such training to offer the ability to officers to apply skills for a safe and beneficial outcome when crisis occurs.
- Michael Dooley, Director of Training Services, PA Department of Corrections, expressed his support and appreciation for the National Council and the Mental Health First Aid in Law Enforcement training program. He explained the fact that a very disproportionate amount of people with mental health needs have ended up in the corrections system because of the mental illness increase as well as a lack of adequate responses and resources in the community. Mr. Dooley informed us that there are 11,764 inmates, which 23.5 percent receive psychiatric services. And, out of that number, 3940 are considered seriously ill, which represent 8 percent of inmates. Therefore, to better prepare the staff, the MHFA training has shown a promise in promoting a change in the culture of how the staff works with this population of offenders. Finally, Mr. Dooley proudly shared that they are launching the “project MHFA” which will have 16,000 staff who are working in prisons, community corrections centers, and administrative offices trained by the end of March, 2015.