Dozens of caregivers recently spent a day at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s Mainland campus learning to identify the signs of mental health and substance-abuse issues, and how to help people with those into an appropriate level of recovery.

The approach is called “mental health first aid,” and there was an emphasis on providing it to young people. That made it especially valuable to the many school nurses, social workers and foster parents taking the training.

Health providers in Australia started developing a standardized first-aid approach to mental health issues in 2000.

Their goal was to identify actions that are supportive and won’t make problems worse. Extensive research helped develop international best-practice mental health first aid guidelines.

When the National Council for Behavioral Health brought the program to the United States in 2008, its vision was to make mental health first aid training as common as that for CPR, the first aid response for cardiac arrest. That’s a good goal that has brought courses to communities across America.

But the vision is too narrow. Mental health first response could also be greatly improved by less demanding forms of public education.

Look at CPR training. After decades of it, only one in six Americans knows the basic recommended CPR technique for bystanders when someone’s heart stops, according to a Cleveland Clinic survey last year. (It is chest compressions only, no breaths.) Only 1 in 10 knows the correct pace for those compressions (100 to 120 beats per minute).

The Australians saw the benefit of broader public information and made it available. They say mental health first aid “can be learned by anyone in the community and should be seen as part of the responsibility of every person to care for others.”

To that end, they make available the mental health first aid guidelines and the more concise action plan whose five elements can be remembered with the acronym ALGEE — Approach, assess and assist with any crisis; Listen non-judgmentally; Give support and information; Encourage appropriate professional help; and Encourage other supports.

The guidelines and action plan can be downloaded for free at the Mental Health First Aid International website (

Training courses in mental health first aid are great for people in key positions to see early signs of those developing illnesses such as depression, psychosis, substance misuse, eating disorders, gambling problems, confusion and dementia. This should be a component of the ongoing training required for teachers in New Jersey.

And everyone should become familiar enough with the basics to respond to a potential mental health crisis such as someone suicidal, self-injuring, having a panic attack or dealing with a traumatic experience.

The more people who take a mental health first aid training course, the better for society. Course providers can be found at the National Council for Behavioral Health website,

Society would also be helped by a broader public information campaign and by people reading about the basics of mental health first aid themselves. For many people, that’s a more realistic goal.

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