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Like first aid for mental health, program aims to educate Alaskans on mental illness

Laurel Andrews

What if mental illness was treated the same as physical injury? A partnership of Alaska health care organizations is hoping one day this will be the case, by ending the stigma typically associated with mental illness. A training program that teaches Alaskans how to identify and assist people exhibiting signs of mental health issues -- dubbed Mental Health First Aid -- has already been at work in Alaska, and now organizers are ramping up the program in hopes that one day it will become as commonplace as CPR. 

Mental Health First Aid was started in Australia in 2001, and has since been making its way across the globe.

The training program seeks to break down the stigma of mental illness -- helping people realize that mental illnesses are, “brain disorders, not character flaws,” said training coordinator Jill Ramsey.

The program first came to Alaska three years ago, under the auspices of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, the University of Alaska, the Alaska Primary Care Association and various health care providers.

Now, those organizations are putting more resources toward the program in an attempt to take it to a whole new level. This week in Anchorage they will be increasing the number of trainers capable of teaching the course from five to 30.

Since the Mental Health First Aid program came to Alaska in 2010, around 1,000 people have taken the course. With the new influx of trainers, that number should triple in just one year, said Ramsey.

Behavioral health issues, from substance abuse to schizophrenia, aren’t adequately addressed in Alaska, Ramsey said.

“How can we stop having people completely ignore this?” she asked. “That’s how we have the suicide rate we have.”

In Alaska, suicide prevention training is a major part of the course. High suicide rates have plagued the state for decades. And the already startlingly high rates -- second highest in the U.S. in 2010 -- are especially pronounced for Alaska Natives. This year at the annual gathering of the Alaska Federation of Natives in Fairbanks, discussions surrounding suicide were a hallmark of the event.

Given Alaska’s high rates, “it seems logical that we would invest in mental health first aid as suicide prevention,” Ramsey said.

Along with addressing stigma, the program aims to educate about the fear often associated with mental health issues.

“Why is it that we’re perfectly comfortable giving the Heimlich maneuver to a stranger in a restaurant, with no training at all, but if somebody is having a panic attack or hearing voices we’ll likely cross over to the other side of the street?” Ramsey asked.

In learning what to do, that fear is reduced, Ramsey said.

Mental health training in rural Alaska

For rural Alaskan communities, the training is particularly important. In many villages, access to comprehensive health care is a plane ride away. In the Lower 48, help is instead often a phone call away, and “in Alaska sometimes that’s just not coming,” Ramsey said.

Demand for the training in rural Alaska was apparent to Page O’Connell, a mental health worker in Dillingham, when she attended the course last winter. “The room was packed” with both community members and folks who had traveled from neighboring villages, she said.

“In Dillingham we don’t get a lot of opportunity for training,” O'Connell said. Even more important is that the course is offered to everyone in the community, not just those working in health or social services.

“Our community is better off,” she said.

Morgann Machalek, a victim’s advocate with Unalaskans Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence, was one of those who traveled to Dillingham to attend the class.

Machalek agrees that life in rural Alaska necessitates this kind of training. “We’re kind of a catch-all when you live in a small place,” she said. “There may be no police officer, no VPSO, no clinic.”

Machalek helps run a crisis hot line in Unalaska. “Really any type of call can come in on that line,” she said, from suicidal ideation, to domestic violence, to panic attacks. “I’ve definitely had calls where I’m glad where I’ve had that training.”

For Machalek, like many other Alaskans, mental health issues are deeply personal. “I’ve lost friends to suicide,” she said.

“We just brush mental illness off as people having a hard time,” she continued. The training helped her to both recognize the signs of mental illness, and helped her to feel more comfortable in her ability to help those who may be struggling.

'Coming to see what they should have done'

Many people who take the training are in a similar position as Machalek. Ramsey said many people are drawn to the class who have lost a loved one, and are “coming to see what they should have done.”

People from all walks of life have taken the course -- including Catholic priests from the Anchorage archdiocese, resident assistants who live in college dorms, social workers and employees of private businesses. Trainers have traveled to Barrow, Bethel, Nome and Sitka, among other locales. And as the thirty new trainers disseminate their skills across the state, the hope is that it will become more and more commonplace.

The goal for Ramsey and other advocates of the training is that it become as prevalent as CPR training -- perhaps even becoming a requirement for some employers.

“It’s something Alaska really needs and is making a big difference,” Ramsey said.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com and follow her on Twitter at @Laurel_Andrews