When Mental Illness Hits Home

How "Mental Health First Aid" can help you and your family.

Posted Nov 08, 2013

By Linda Rosenberg and Lloyd Sederer, MD

Lisa Anderson won't forget that panicked phone call from her mother, when she said, "Your brother says he wants to kill himself."

From her home in Washington, D.C., Lisa called her brother in California. She could tell he was distressed. As she talked with him, she remembered her Mental Health First Aid training: stay calm, assess for risk of suicide, listen non-judgmentally. She asked questions that let her brother explain what he was thinking and feeling, and why he was considering taking his life. She knew not to argue with him. She understood she had to focus on getting as much information as possible about his emotional state, what he might do, and his location.

As they talked, she learned that her brother had taken an overdose of medications. When he said he "just wanted to fall asleep" and hung up, she knew to immediately call the police. They responded promptly, and could find him because of information she had gathered. Her brother was in a wooded area 20 miles from his house. He was rushed to the hospital. 

Lisa's entire family then became involved in helping her brother get the care he needed for recovery from a mental illness.

Mental Health First Aid training had taught Lisa how to help her brother. The course can help many other people who find themselves with a person developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis.

When a loved one has heart disease or cancer, families rally around -- they cook, clean, drive their loved ones to doctor's appointments, give pep talks, and much more. But when someone is struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, or other mental conditions, family members are not sure what to do, which can be heartbreaking when what they want more than anything is to help their loved one. When that happens, people with mental illness are left feeling that much more alone and at risk to do something destructive to themselves, and sometimes to someone else.

Mental illnesses are far more common than people think. More than one in five adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. And few actually seek professional help. Families are often our first responders and can be a person's primary support network, whether they are ill with a medical or mental illness.

Reflecting on her involvement in her brother's recovery, Lisa says that encountering a family member in crisis was a crisis for her. But, she adds, because of Mental Health First Aid, she was able to speak with her brother with calm, composure and to make a difference. She was able to demonstrate how she loved him and reassure him the family would be there for him.

 While a suicide attempt is a moment when Mental Health First Aid can be invaluable, the training does more. It also teaches people how to intervene in less intense circumstances, which are common and a way of keeping a problem from becoming a crisis. Using role playing and other activities, the training invites participants to practice conversations of helping people with a variety of concerns.

The Mental Health First Aid Action Plan

• Assess for Risk of Suicide or Harm

• Listen Nonjudgmentally

• Give Reassurance and Information

• Encourage Appropriate Professional Help

• Encourage Self-Help and Other Support Strategies

Mental Health First Aid training not only gives people the skills to recognize signs and symptoms of mental illnesses, it gives them the confidence to intervene, how to safely deescalate a crisis situation, and help someone care for themselves and get professional help. A recent study found that people trained in Mental Health First Aid had greater confidence in helping others, a greater likelihood of advising people to seek professional help, and decreased stigmatizing attitudes among those who took the training.

What would you do if a family member was depressed? Or self-destructive or suicidal? Or experiencing hallucinations? Every day hundreds of people are learning what to do, how to take action, by taking Mental Health First Aid training in the communities across the country that are now offering it. To find a course near you, visit www.MentalHealthFirstAid.org.


Linda Rosenberg is President and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, which runs the Mental Health First Aid program in the U.S.

Dr. Lloyd Sederer is Medical Director of the New York State Office of Mental Health and author of The Family Guide to Mental Health Care - www.askdrlloyd.com 

Originally published in the Huffington Post on October 21, 2013