Why take Mental Health First Aid?

Program manager Alicia Freeman explains how training to intervene in crisis situations benefits Carolina’s community.

Q&A graphic with a portrait of a woman, Alicia Freeman.

In contrast to physical ailments, mental health challenges can be more difficult to spot in our peers and colleagues. It doesn’t help that conversations around mental health often carry a stigma.

But just like CPR training or the Heimlich maneuver can help save lives, Mental Health First Aid equips laypeople with the tools needed to intervene safely in crisis situations.

Offered by the UNC School of Social Work since 2015, MHFA is a free eight-hour training that teaches participants to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health challenges and substance use in others, help someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis, and connect individuals to professional resources that can provide more care.

Carolina faculty, staff and students can register for one- or two-day MHFA sessions and earn a certification that is valid for three years.

UNC.edu recently caught up with program manager Alicia Freeman to discuss the importance of the training for Carolina’s campus.

What kind of experience should people expect from this instructor-led training?

In the live session, folks can expect to participate and be challenged and have opportunities for group work and to pair and share with other peers throughout the cohort. We spend time diving into scenarios and how folks might present with early signs and symptoms versus more worsening signs — and on up to crisis level. There’s a full spectrum. If folks are at a crisis level, we definitely want to get them connected to professional support immediately, so it really helps people to identify the differences there and what would be the most appropriate things to talk about or to offer in terms of information and support.

One point brought up in the training is that Mental Health First Aiders shouldn’t diagnose mental health conditions. How important is it to emphasize the difference between first aiders and professionals?

We joke and we say, “After today’s training, we’re all going to get tattoos that say, ‘We don’t diagnose or treat.’” We say it so many times because it is so important. The course doesn’t train you to do that. It doesn’t train you to be a therapist. It’s not a support group. It’s not a clinical training program. It is very important that we are just recognizing that folks may need some support just the same way if we see somebody fall down and sprain their ankle. We try to compare a lot between physical health and mental health to help people destigmatize and understand there are professionals who are trying to help you through these types of things. The same way we would go to the doctor for diabetes or cancer and receive a treatment plan and medication as appropriate, we have these same options with mental illness.

What kind of feedback do you normally get from people who have gone through the training? Have you heard any success stories?

Absolutely. I think that’s one of the most fulfilling things. Sometimes we’ll get an email the next day from one of the participants that’s like, “Oh, my God, I had no idea that I would have to use this so soon. And I’m so glad that I had the skills and resource list to respond.” We provide a resource sheet that’s also housed on our website that provides some local and national resources that we can utilize. Even in our data, we do a three-month and a six-month follow-up survey with folks, and 95% of participants say they would recommend this training to someone else.