Mental Health First Aid

Hello, everyone!

It’s been a long five days, friends.  I’ve been working straight 12 hour shifts culminating in an accidental 16 hour shift yesterday because I thought I had signed up to stay tonight when in reality I signed up to stay yesterday and had to go in early.

Watch, I did sign up to stay tonight and just forgot.  Ugh.  I need to check that.

I have to tell you though, working 16 hours in a row was not that bad.  Mostly because the first four were inservice which was just a pretty cool class that I got paid to take.

I had never heard of this class before but now that I know about it, I feel as if everyone should take it.  It is called Mental Health First Aid and the teacher compared it to regular first aid.  We basically learned symptoms and signs for mental illness and steps we could take to assist someone until professional help arrives.  It makes total sense to me that this would be a necessary thing, right?  You never know when someone around you is going to have a crisis and mental health professionals can’t keep tabs on everyone, just like paramedics and doctors can’t keep tabs on people to make sure they never get hurt.

Also, the class really, really helped me get through my stigma of talking about mental health.  I also realized that I had a tendency to brush it off and ignore it as if someone was ‘faking it’ or ‘looking for attention’.  Part of the reason for this is that in my line of work we deal with so many people with mental illnesses that it seems as if everyone has a mental illness.  But the truth of it is simply (unfortunately) that people with mental illness are more likely to have run-ins with law enforcement due to being misunderstood or being unable to make good choices while they are in the middle of an episode.

I also realized that I tend to deny how much a mental illness can affect someone.  In the class the instructor talked about some cases she’d seen of people with schizophrenia (which we learned comes from the Greek words for fractured mind) and how they heard an additional voice or in some cases additional voices in their heads in the middle of conversations which made it difficult for them to focus on what is going on in front of them.

Imagine having a full conversation that you can’t control going on next to you – a child playing loudly, a grandmother whispering in your ear, someone just talking nonsense to you – while trying to speak to someone on the phone, write a paper or cook a meal.  Imagine how distracting that is?

Now imagine that that voice is telling you to kill yourself or other people.

Now imagine that you hear that all day, every day for years.

It’s real and it is debilitating.

We also talked about the true symptoms of depression and, everyone, let me tell you, I have been sad in my lifetime, but I have never been truly depressed.  True depression just takes your whole life away from you.  I did not realize how devastating it actually is.

I think that, in our modern age, a lot of people have this concept that they should be 100% happy, 100% of the time.  That’s not true.  Being sad, frustrated, angry, hurt, bored and betrayed are just as much a part of the human experience as being elated, celebratory and joyous are.  And being sad for one day does not mean you are depressed.

In the book we got in class they define a major depressive order as:

  1. Lasting for at least two weeks.
  2. Affects the person’s ability to work, carry out usual daily activities and to have satisfying personal relationships.

In other words, being truly depressed affects your whole life because you just aren’t the same.  Depressed people can sometimes literally just slow down.  They don’t make decisions quickly, they don’t speak quickly, they sleep a whole lot, they can’t make themselves get out of bed in the morning, they stop taking care of personal hygiene because they just don’t care, they withdraw from the people around them, they can stop having emotional reactions to things, they can lose interest in food and other activities they used to enjoy….the list goes on.  The symptoms of depression are extreme and far, far beyond “just being sad”.

We also talked about anxiety disorders.

Regular anxiety is something that is normal to feel.  It is sort of an instinct that attempts to keep you safe in dangerous situations and regular anxiety should dissipate once that thing you are anxious about becomes familiar.

For instance, it is normal to be anxious when preparing to speak in front of a crowd or trying something new.  But the anxiety should go away once you have started speaking and become comfortable, or once you get used to that new activity.  It’s not a mental illness if you feel anxious during those times.

However, an anxiety disorder is different in these ways:

  1. It is more intense.
  2. It lasts longer.
  3. It interferes with your work, activities, or relationships.

(You might be sensing the same pattern that I did at this point.  Mental illness basically keeps you from having those normal human interactions that people expect from you.  Basically, being able to hold down a job, do things you enjoy and have people in your life that you love.)

Talking about anxiety disorders – most people with anxiety disorders will have their first episode by age eleven.  I felt really, really bad for all those children with anxiety when I heard that statistic.  And they had it by age 11.  Which means a lot of people have had anxiety attacks at younger than age 10 or 9.

I used to think anxiety attacks were just people panicking for no good reason.  That’s not true.  Different things can bring on an anxiety attack, it depends on the person, but some of the symptoms are:

  1. Pounding heart, chest pain, rapid heartbeat.
  2. Dizziness, headaches, sweating, numbness.
  3. Hyperventilation, shortness of breath.
  4. Choking, nausea, dry mouth, stomach pain.
  5. Aches and pains, restlessness, tremors, inability to relax.
  6. Unrealistic fear and worry.
  7. Decreased concentration and indecisiveness
  8. Anger, confusion.
  9. Tiredness, sleep disturbance
  10. Avoidance of situations
  11. Distress in social situations

You don’t have to display all of these symptoms during a panic attack.  These are some that people can display.

Again – the old fashioned, westerner part of me wants to just say “stand up, wipe your face off and deal with it” but…that is honestly not the case for some people.

Yes.  Some people do fake these illnesses for attention or what have you.  Some people incorrectly self-diagnose themselves as being ‘depressed’ or as having an anxiety disorder because they are sad after they had a breakup or anxious because they are worried about the outcome of an upcoming situation, but once I took this class I realized the real difference.

True mental illness will keep you away from living your normal life.  It is not temporary, it is not fixable on your own and it will not go away if you ignore it.

We talked about a whole lot of other things in this class – drug and alcohol dependency, eating disorders, psychosis, bipolar disorders, suicide prevention, etc.  I highly, highly recommend anyone to take this class and you can.  It’s designed for everyone from civilians to law enforcement.

MentalHealthFirstAid.org is the website for the program out of the United States.

MHFA.ca is the website for the program in Canada.

MHFA.com.au is the program out of Australia (which is where this whole thing originated!  Go Australia!!)

MHFAEngland.org is the program out of the UK.

I just found the four that I knew about so if you have one of these for your country please post the link in the comments below and I’ll add it to this list (and give you a shout out!)  You can go to these websites to sign up for a Mental Health First Aid class near you and learn what I did.  It is only eight hours long and will really open your eyes to the truth about mental illness.  It will also give you some tools to help you recognize signs and symptoms of people who are being affected by mental illness and teach you what to do to help them before professional help can arrive.

Another resource that the instructor gave us (specifically for the U.S., sorry guys, but if you know of one in your country please let me know and I’ll post it here) is the National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI.  They have an additional set of resources and learning opportunities for family members of people affected by mental illnesses.  They also do a lot of awareness campaigns and talk to people about stigma and have all around good information about getting help with mental illness.

It wasn’t until I was suddenly and irreversibly affected by mental illness that I tried to learn anything about it.  I wish, now, that I knew this information three months ago so that I could have seen the signs and symptoms that my friend was displaying.  I wish I had known of these resources before he took his life so that maybe I could have talked to him, maybe I could have asked him if he was considering killing himself and then maybe I could have prevented so much sadness, pain and heartache.

Don’t be like me.  Take the opportunity to learn how to help now before it is too late.  If someone around you was bleeding to death, you’d take immediate action, right?  How is this any different?

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