Tiffanie Lyon, an associate pastor at Slidell’s First United Methodist Church, still replays in her mind the way she handled a mental health crisis that unfolded at her other job, one with a company that finds employment for people with disabilities.
One of her clients was in distress, and Lyon said she instinctively did some things right — staying calm, for example. But now, after taking an eight-hour training class in mental health first aid, she said, she’s far more prepared to help someone in that situation — something she feels certain she will encounter again.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness-St. Tammany provided Lyon’s training. Next month, the group is offering three additional sessions to equip people like Lyon — pastors, teachers, nurses, first responders, family members and others — to be a first line of intervention for people facing mental health crises.
NAMI St. Tammany offered a pilot course last fall to gauge the level of interest, bringing in an instructor from Mental Health First Aid USA to do a series of classes, program coordinator Martha Benson said.
Now the local group has its own personnel who have been through additional training to become instructors.
The idea is similar to CPR training, Benson said, and Mental Health First Aid USA’s webpage calls for making it just as common.
People who take the eight-hour intensive training are certified, but as with CPR, they must be recertified periodically — every three years compared with every two for CPR.
The course starts with an overview about mental illness and how widespread it is, Benson said, from mood disorders, like anxiety and depression, that can bring about panic attacks and suicide attempts to thought disorders that might result in a psychotic episode.
One in 4 or 5 adults and 1 in 10 children will experience some sort of mental health condition in any given year, Benson said. The prevalence is much higher among homeless people, she said, pegging it at 26 percent.
For that reason, Lyon said, she thinks it’s more likely that someone certified in mental health first aid will use their training than someone certified in CPR.
“You may not encounter someone who is suicidal,” Benson said. “But you might encounter someone having a panic attack, and you sure would be glad to have that training.”
Like CPR, which helps people remember what to do in an emergency with an acronym — ABC for airway, breathing and circulation — this form of emergency intervention has its own mnemonic device: ALGEE.
That stands for:
Assess for risk of suicide or harm.
Give reassurance and information.
Encourage appropriate professional help.
Encourage self-help and other support.
“People don’t know what to say, and they’re not sure what to do,” Benson said. Many people are afraid to bring up suicide, for example. But that’s the first thing the training tells participants to address.
The class helps overcome people’s reticence and uncertainty when dealing with a person in crisis, Benson said.
When two Mandeville teenagers committed suicide in a two-day span last month, NAMI held two forums, and it recently brought in Kevin Hines, a survivor of an attempted suicide leap from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, to speak May 20.
Hines told the group that he took public transit to the bridge and encountered many people on his way there, Benson said. “He was visibly upset, crying his eyes out and very emotional,” she said. “Not a person on the bus said a word to him.”
He concluded that he wasn’t worth saving, a thought that arose from his mental illness, Benson said. But if one person had asked if he was OK, he might not have jumped.
“I do not want that to happen here,” Benson said.
So far in 2016, there have been 12 suicides in St. Tammany Parish, according to St. Tammany Outreach for the Prevention of Suicide. In 2015, the total was 40, and in 2014, it was 47.
But Benson also points to another important set of numbers: how many people in St. Tammany were directed to receive a psychiatric evaluation either through an order of protective custody signed by a judge or the Coroner’s Office, a physician emergency certificate or a coroner’s emergency certificate. In 2015, doctors signed 5,405 certificates, and the Coroner’s Office signed 3,867.
Even so, the subject remains taboo for many, Lyon said. Faith communities have a role to play in changing that. Last week, her church held a presentation called Bridges of Hope to help educate people about mental illness, what resources are available and what churches can do.
Lyon said she thinks mental health first aid should be a mandatory part of education for clergy, noting that many pastors were in her training class, as well as teachers, law enforcement officers and members of the parish Coroner’s Office.
Benson said she expects the classes, which cost $95, to fill up quickly. The sessions will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 20-22 at Ochsner-Northshore. Registration is required and can be made by calling (985) 626-6538 or online at at www.namisttammany.org.
From Benson’s perspective, mental illness is becoming a more openly addressed issue in St. Tammany. She no longer hears, “NAMI who?” she said.
“Anytime that there is attention to a difficult situation, a crisis situation, that’s a move in the right direction,” she said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.