Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Review : From A Parent’s Perspective Who Cares For A Child With A Serious Mental Illness

Recently I signed up for a Mental Health First Aid Course that was put on by the Washington County Behavioral Board in Marietta, Ohio. I was very excited to attend this course. It is a free 8 hour class that educates you to the basic procedures you should employ to respond to common mental health crisis’. As I run the Healthy Mind Ministry, have a Mental Wellness Peer Group and am the mother of a son with schizophrenia this class seemed a “must do” as well as a “want to do”, I was excited to attend.

The class contained many professional people. A principal of a local school, a police chaplain and minister, a local emergency medical technician and many others from local nursing homes including social workers, care-givers and substance abuse survivors and advocates. It was nice to be among so many people who were eager to bolster their knowledge about mental health issues so that they could better serve the people they attend to in their professions. It gave me hope that the tides are changing in America, that we are recognizing that mental health is just as important as physical health.

When class began one instructor made a comment about the book “Mad In America” and suggested we read it. I chalked this up to personal preferences and dismissed it. It was not part of the course that we were taught so I understood this to be her personal opinion, not that of the Behavioral Health Board or The National Council. Unfortunately it is an opinion that is very contradictory to research & science that clearly proves treatment works. It is all too commonly the untreated mentally ill that harm themselves or others, commit suicide, and are trapped in a cycle of vagrancy and incarceration. Those that are treated tend to live far more productive lives at a higher level of functioning and over all well-being than those left untreated. I will always advocate for the compassionate, affordable, easily accessible mental healthcare so many desperately need and for those that need it the most, those living with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar.  I will also always advocate for the compassionate intervention of other individuals on their behalf when those mental illnesses rob them of the ability to make informed and rational decisions about their own safety and well-being. I believe in treatment and I believe in having a safety net of support to prevent tragedies before they ever happen.

The program covered many of the most common mental health crisis’ we encounter. Great detail went into depression, anxiety, panic disorders, etc. We were taught breathing techniques to give someone experiencing a panic attack. We were taught what to say and what not to say and we spent the majority of the time in class on these issues. I get the reasoning of why, as these issues will be experienced by the majority of people. They are important topics to cover and I felt the course did do an efficient job of building us a foundation of elementary knowledge we could use should we encounter someone who is depressed or experiencing the effects of an anxiety disorder or coping with a substance use disorder.

But as we moved on in the afternoon to what the MHFA course called “psychosis” my feelings quickly changed. First of all psychosis is a symptom. It would be like calling the part devoted to depression “isolation” or calling the part devoted to anxiety “rapid breathing”. Psychosis is a generalized symptom of either a psychiatric disorder or a medical condition. I would have much preferred this to be called “Serious Mental Illness”.  It almost feels like they are afraid to say words like “schizophrenia” or “bipolar disorder” so they prance and dance around probably the most dangerous of all the mental health crisis’ and try to repaint them as something less threatening or more socially acceptable. When we do that, it is like telling someone to treat a heart attack just like they would heart burn, a psychosis is a serious condition and must be treated appropriately.

I was the only one there who had knowledge of schizophrenia on a personal level and was willing to share with the group my experiences. I am very open about what has happened to our family and my son, so I did share much of what I knew about psychosis and schizophrenia with my class. I educated them to the fact that not everyone who hears voices has schizophrenia. I told them that schizophrenia is a complex psychiatric illness that effects many different areas of a person living with its life.  I went on to explain that it takes months to diagnose, and the anti-psychotic medications used to treat it can take weeks to months to actually work and that there is still very little that we know about this terrible disease. I told them about the fact that suicide is one of the concerns that is most urgent and pressing for those caring for a loved one with schizophrenia – these are all things I doubt would have been covered had I not been there.

My experience does not seem to be unique. Many of the other mothers I deal with through my serious mental illness advocacy have had similar experiences with their particular MHFA courses. This is alarming because this is a nationwide program, and all of us have attended at varying locations across the US which suggests that the portion of the MHFA course that deals with “psychosis” should perhaps be re-written to include more life saving skills for those encountering a person in psychosis due to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This particular mental health crisis is by far the most severe. The one suffering it has lost their connection to reality and are in need of immediate medical attention because they have a 17 x higher morbidity rate due to suicide than those without schizophrenia. That is important life saving information!

Getting the person with a serious mental illness where they need to be is often difficult, even for those who have dealt with it before. Perhaps the MHFA should employ a psychiatrist or other mental health professional to record a brief but potent video on what to do and what not to do to secure proper treatment for a loved one who has slipped into psychosis. Covering important topics like when to call 911 or how to utilize 211 in areas that make it available. They could go over signs that the person is having suicidal or homicidal thoughts or that the crisis has escalated into dangerous areas. There are warning signs that a professional could address that could save the life of the one in psychosis, and keep those around them free from harm as well.

I am not willing to throw the baby out with the bath water so to speak. I think any program that opens up the conversation on mental health awareness is wonderful. I loved my instructors. I also enjoyed the other attendees and it did inspire me to see so many of varying professions so eager to learn more about this often overlooked area. I would however suggest that the MHFA course reevaluate its content on serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar 1. These illnesses are by far the most severe on the spectrum of mental health crisis’ and it is a underservice to this particular population to not include more accurate information to service them in their time of need.

I know many people who work in serious mental advocacy that would love to be invited to give their input on that portion of the MHFA course. Those people who care for a loved one that is dealing with a severe psychiatric illness like schizophrenia or bipolar have a wealth of information and advice that could make truly make the difference between life and death for those encountering a first episode psychosis. I hope MHFA is open to such a conversation. It would be a wonderful beginning to helping many people understand the challenges faced by so many in our country who deal with serious mental illness every day.

WTAP interviewed me after the course. Here is the full article and video:

To learn more on MHFA or to find a course near you please visit their site:

Contact Information:

Author / Serious Mental Illness Advocate Tamara Dalrymple

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