Making mental health first aid classes free could change everything

Tracy Abzug mental health first aid

An initiative between the St. David’s Foundation and Integral Care, the nonprofit that provides mental health services and advocacy in Central Texas, is successfully expanding mental health first aid training across the region. The free, one-day training sessions provide the skills everyday people need to intervene and stabilize someone who might be showing signs of a mental health issue.

Laura Gold, prevention services manager for Integral Care, compares it to CPR and medical first aid training in that it prepares someone to handle a crisis until a mental health professional can take over, if needed. But in doing so, she said, the training also addresses the stigma of mental illness.

“Statistically, one in five people in the United States will experience a mental health illness in a given year,” said Gold. “We’re always talking about breaking down the stigma of mental health. Well, the first way to do that is through education.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports other disturbing data on the state of America’s mental health, including statistics like only 42 percent of adults with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year.

While Integral Care has been providing the training to select groups of professionals since 2009, St. David’s Foundation initiated the expansion of the program so it could reach more people. Its 2016 grant to Integral Care came after taking stock of the region’s continuum of mental health care. What it discovered, says Kim McPherson, the St. David’s Foundation’s senior program officer, was a gap in early intervention.

“It didn’t make any sense that St. David’s and the larger community would be funneling millions of dollars to crisis and acute services, but not concurrently thinking about how to go upstream,” said McPherson. “Unless we can stem the tide via prevention, we all get flooded.”

Since initiating the free training events in the spring of 2017, Integral Care estimates that more than 500 people have been trained. There are six types of mental health first aid training opportunities, including those for people who work with adults, youths, veterans, seniors, college-age students and the general public. Integral Care partners with Bluebonnet Trails Community Services to offer the training events from Dove Springs to Round Rock. Trainers are bilingual, all materials are covered, and they even travel with their own projector and laptop.

“We’re like a traveling show,” said Gold. “St. David’s wanted to remove all the barriers to this information.”

In addition to training events for the public, Integral Care has provided mental health first aid training to officers and inmates from the Travis County sheriff’s office, students from UT’s School of Nursing, and staff from state Sen. Kirk Watson’s office.

Keysha Walcott, the constituent services manager for Watson’s office, admits to having preconceived notions about mental illness, but says the training changed her mind.

“Going into it, I considered myself a very empathetic person,” said Walcott. “It’s changed the way I do my job, but I also feel like I can be a better friend now and a better human being.”

Learn more and sign up for a mental health first aid class, click here.


PHOTO: Tracy Abzug leads a free class in mental health first aid in September. Photo courtesy Integral Health. 

NOTE: A version of this article also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on May 6, 2018.
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