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How to Help a Friend In a Mental Health Crisis

0 2 years ago

Midway through the morning session of Mental Health First Aid, a course at the Mental Health Center of Denver, my instructor asks me to turn to one of my tablemates, look them in the eye, and ask a simple question: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” Not “hurting yourself,” because the semantics will work against you. “Killing yourself.” Simple, direct, straight-faced.

I fail. I ask the question with an uncomfortable laugh and a half smile. It turns out that question is really, really hard to ask, even when you’re interrogating a nonsuicidal stranger in a training exercise who knows it’s coming.

And that’s the point. The instructors at these increasingly popular learn-to-help classes want us to ask the question aloud so that when we need to use it in real life, we won’t hesitate or otherwise botch it.

That’s because one in five Americans has a mental health disorder, and whether we like it or not, there’s a good chance that we—the friend, the parent, the confidant—will be the emotional first responder to someone’s panic attack, depression, or suicidal musing. And, like me, most of us have no clue what to do.

What Mental Health First Aid is

Mental Health First Aid has been around since 2000, when it was created in Australia by a nurse and a professor of mental health literacy to educate the public about mental disorders. At libraries and other public facilities, it teaches the signs and symptoms of various conditions, and then—and this is crucial—how to talk about them with the person in distress. In the U. S., 12,000 MHFA instructors have trained more than a million people. After the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama allocated $15 million to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to implement the program through state and local education agencies.

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