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Mental health first aid training offered to local residents

Mental Health Trainer Gina Ehlert teaches a class at Greenville Wellness Center on Nov. 29 where she shares how to speak with and how to recognizes people having mental health challenges. Photo by Meg Upton

We are all familiar with the concept of first responders — those that rush into an emergency situation — our firefighters immediately come to mind, as do our paramedics and other EMTs.

We do not however, think immediately of Mental Health First Responders — and the vital role they could play in keeping people alive and unharmed during a mental health crisis or episode.

Plumas Rural Services sponsored a class at the Greenville Wellness Center on Nov. 29 for interested residents from throughout the county to train to become first responders for mental health.

“We are so happy to have this here,” said Greenville Wellness Center site coordinator Rhonda Reames.

The class was a full workday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and offered a catered lunch from Greenville High School’s culinary program.

The class, funded by Plumas County’s MHSA community training program, brought trainer Gina Ehlert of GETraining Solutions to town. Ehlert has been doing these training classes since 2011. She’s trained approximately 24 classes such as the one in Greenville in northern California counties since 2011 and has provided these sorts of trainings all over the country.

She provided attendees both the clinical and scientific information they needed as well as personal stories from her own experiences with family members and others. That combination proved effective to those attending the class, who universally seemed to respond to both her humor and personal honesty in conveying her message.

There are takeaways she wanted everyone to consider and take to heart.

“People can and do recover from mental illnesses. Anyone, even you, can make the difference between a mental health challenge and a mental health crisis,” Ehlert said.

“Early intervention and supports are key to assisting individuals with mental health challenges in recovery,” she continued. “Mental Health First Aid saves lives.”

The attendees seem to each have their own experience with mental health challenges — either their own, family members, friends or those they encountered at their workplaces — especially those dealing with services in the county.

Each participant was given a book titled “Mental Health First Aid USA” to refer to which is also available through the website www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

Ehlert’s oral and Powerpoint presentation highlighted many key issues addressed in the book: defining mental health and disorders, depression and other mood disorders. She covered anxiety, psychosis, substance use disorders and eating.

Ehlert reminded participants  that mental health and the brain are connected to the rest of the body — something both insurance companies and those having issues do not always realize. Food, family history and generational trauma can all have an effect on mental health. Being separated from one’s parents or being orphaned at age 2, for example, could have repercussions for mental health for a lifetime.

The presentation was powerful as were the aspects of daily life that Ehlert touched on. For example, she brought attention to how the language we use to describe mental illnesses can often be judgmental. That our language around the popular everyday discussions of depression or anorexia or other disorders can make someone suffering from them less inclined to reach out when they need to.

Through role-playing and other activities, class members were given first hand experience in what it’s like to be suffering from a mental health challenge.

Ehlert had groups break into threes and had two people have a conversation while another person whispered into the ear of one of the speakers, paranoid phrases to simulate what an auditory hallucination might feel like. The result was a room full of attendees becoming more compassionate for those suffering from hearing voices.

Ehlert at one point — as the focus on suicide prevention became more prevalent — had attendees say the words that no one wants to say: Are you thinking about hurting yourself? Are you thinking about suicide? She reiterated that saying them out loud would help attendees get more comfortable with recognizing the signs in people and being clear when asking someone and confronting them regarding their plans.

Plumas County fits squarely in the demographic most likely to die by suicide (a phrase she offered to be more fitting than ‘committed’). Suicides, statistically speaking, are higher in rural areas than urban, higher in males than females, higher in “whites” than any other ethnic demographic. Women attempt more often, but men succeed more often — the fact of which is attributed to methods.

Of particular interest to many surveyed at the breaks was the information given out regarding the onset of mental health challenges and what first responders should look for. For most people dealing with mental illness as an adult, signs of it developing show up as young as age 14.

Attendees who participated for the full day were given certificates of completion of their training. Twelve people were trained at this event. It won’t be the last of these countywide events.

“PRS has been awarded a three-year grant for mental health awareness training across the county. We will be offering free training in Mental Health First Aid, safe talk, and ASIST (applied suicide intervention skills training), [and] our neighboring counties can also attend for free,” said Dana Nowling of PRS.

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