When it comes to discussing the stigma around mental illness, Mike Gruber easily rattles off a list of myths that the public often holds: People who have mental illness or substance-abuse disorders are dangerous, lazy, weak or even immoral.
"All of those myths can cause shame and embarrassment," says Gruber, system-transformation coordinator in the Office of Behavioral Health at Allegheny County's Department of Human Services. "As a result, they don't seek help."
That's something Gruber and a collaborative of the Office of Behavioral Health and Allegheny Health Choices Inc. are trying to change by offering free Mental Health First Aid Training.
"People really believe in it and are enthusiastic," he says. "They see the value of working with people who have the illness and see the stigma and the devastation it causes."
The training is open to community groups, schools, colleges, faith organizations and other interested groups. It's conducted by a number of providers certified in Mental Health First Aid. On May 7 and 8, for example, Gruber and Cecilia Reinheimer, Office of Behavioral Health acute consumer-support planning coordinator, brought the training to the Pittsburgh Technical Institute, in Oakdale. The two-day interactive session taught the class, consisting of future licensed practical nurses, how to identify, understand and respond to mental-health issues and substance-use disorders.
Student Amy Roche learned about the training during a previous class and wanted to bring the opportunity to campus. So she contacted the county.
"I'm always concerned about our children and events in life that they have to deal with and how it affects everyone," says Roche, of the North Hills.
And it's a prevalent issue: According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, one in four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. "These are friends, family, people we sit next to in church on Sunday," Gruber says.
But only a little more than half of adults with a serious mental illness receive treatment for it, according to NIMH.
"People lack knowledge on mental-health problems in the county," Reinheimer says. "Professional help isn't always available if someone is having a crisis, but a person may be able to help if they know how to respond."
That's where the training comes in. Upon completion, students receive a certificate for Mental Health First Aid. While it doesn't offer any clinical certification, it's specially designed for people who aren't mental-health professionals to help friends, neighbors, coworkers and clients.
The interactive course covers topics such as recognizing signs, symptoms, causes and interventions for depression, anxiety, non-suicidal self-injury, substance use and eating disorders. At the heart of the training are skills summed up by the acronym ALGEE: Assessing for risk of suicide or harm; Listening nonjudgmentally; Giving reassurance and information; Encouraging appropriate professional help; and Encouraging self-help.
The hands-on element, Gruber and Reinheimer note, makes their approach more effective at reducing stigma than would a public-awareness campaign. One role-playing scenario from the course shows how to approach a neighbor who's experiencing an emotional crisis and suggesting an action plan for help. During the May 8 training at PTI, for example, students learned the behavioral signs of eating disorders. They were presented with scenarios involving patients, and developed a plan of care to help educate the patient while suggesting resources for treatment, like counseling and self-help books.
"Not every hospital or [health-care] setting has a psych unit, so it's important to have knowledge on what to do and how to get resources for patients," says Andrea Nicholson, a PTI instructor whose class participated in the training. "We need to know, recognize and differentiate the symptoms, the same way you would a heart attack."