The number of Americans committing suicide has been on the rise for the last two decades. Here in New York sate, suicide deaths have increased by 20 to 30 percent in that time. With September being Suicide Prevention Month, Health Reporter Erin Billups takes a look at how one program is teaching everyday New Yorkers how to recognize and respond to people in the midst of a mental health crisis.
So far, 75,000 New Yorkers have taken the free eight-hour Mental Health First Aid training offered by the New York City Department of Health as part of the ThriveNYC initiative. It is an effort to make mental health care more accessible, led by New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray.
“Just as in CPR, people who are not clinically trained can help people after a heart attack,” said McCray. “These folks can now help people who are in mental health crises, maybe contemplating suicide."
Nationally, about 1.4 million Americans have been trained in the course. The program is administered by the non-profit, National Council for Behavioral Health.
"We look at the suicide rates, we look at the addiction rates, and there's a hunger now for understanding and also being able to help each other and not everybody needs professional help," said Linda Rosenberg, the president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health.
So instead of avoiding conversations surrounding mental health, participants are taught to address the problem outright. McCray’s advice is to be direct and ask, “Are you thinking of taking your own life? Are you making the plans? Do you have the tools to do it? The only way you can help someone is to know if this is really on their mind.”
"Even therapists are reluctant to ask people, 'Do you have plans for suicide?'” said Rosenberg, “Because the minute you ask that and people say yes, you could do some safety planning."
Course participants are taught how to respond and where to turn for help. A major pillar of the training is recognizing that natural responses may actually be harmful to the person in crisis.
“We highlight that as one of the hardest stages of our class because everyone thinks that they were doing it correctly, but we have judgments,” Mental Health First Aid Instructor Yunis Esa said. “How can we sort of put our emotions and all our judgment aside and really understand what this person is going through?”
Other topics covered are depression, anxiety, psychosis, and substance use disorders. “Sometimes we frame our anxiety as having bad nerves, and sometimes the remedy to bad nerves may be taking a drink," Mental Health First Aid Tnstructor Chanel Rigby said. "If we had enough information to frame it as experiencing anxiety, maybe we would seek out the help of a professional like a counselor or a therapist."
By the end of the course, participants like Shoshbur Tasneem say they feel empowered to reach out to people that are experiencing mental health problems and feel helpless. “It helps you understand what people are going through, and they're not necessarily bad for going through that.”
With shortages in mental health care professionals, there are some critical of the resources being directed toward these first aid trainings. McCray argues that this sort of exposure to mental health care helps.
“We have huge health disparities in this city and one of the things that Mental Health First Aid does is increase the number of mental health ambassadors, people who are knowledgeable about this field and gets them to higher level training,” McCray said.
Ultimately, the goal is to have 250,000 New Yorkers trained in Mental Health First Aid by 2021, and 2 million Americans trained by 2020.