United Counseling Service attempts to reduce mental illness stigma with training


BENNINGTON >> Overthinking the next step, fear of large crowds and planning ahead are some symptoms of anxiety. It's something that everyone experiences at some point in their life, but may notice in others.

Many myths surround mental health and United Counseling Service (UCS) offered training to teach health support and recognition to debunk those rumors. This is the third year the organization hosted the "Mental Health First Aid" training for first responders and those who work in human services. The training is an international program—that originated in Austrailia—with a five step strategy to take action in various situations.

The first session with 11 participants took place on May 25 and 26 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Day one covered what Mental Health First Aid is, how to understand depression and anxiety disorders, first aid for suicidal behavior, what non-suicidal self-injury is and first aid for depression and anxiety. The second day covered panic attacks, traumatic events, understanding disorders, first aid for acute psychosis, substance use disorders, first aid for overdose and withdrawal, and using Mental Health First Aid.

The course was taught by UCS staff Amy Niles and Sasha Slattery. There are four total instructors for youth and adult Mental Health First Aid.

"The agency was looking for trainers and I had an interest in it," Niles said. "[The training] for anyone in the community who just wants to know more."

The training employed a power point presentation alternated with group activities, for instance a opinion quiz with 'agree,' 'disagree' and 'don't know' questions. Statements included, "It is not a good idea to ask someone if they are feeling suicidal in case you put the idea in their head," or "A first-aider can distinguish a panic attack from a heart attack." Participants were given a training book by the Mental Health First Aid international organization.

One activity involved folks to stand in a line in order of the intensity of a disability that was distributed on a poster board. They were gingivitis, low back pain, epilepsy, paraplegia and severe schizophrenia, to name a few. "Society doesn't always recognize that mental illness is the biggest health problem over cancer and cardiology problems," Niles said.

Nationally, only 41 percent of mentally ill use mental health services and wait about 10 years before seeking treatment. Eighteen percent of adults have an anxiety disorder and between .3 and .7 percent of adults have schizophrenia. The number difference is due to a crossover in disorders.

The objective of the training it to inform people in order to decrease the stigma of mental illness and reduce the use of negative terms in the community such as unstable, nuts, crazy, etc.

Slattery even wrote these terms and more on paper and crumpled it up and threw it away to visually demonstrate the training's mission.

Ralph Provenza, UCS executive director explained that instead of labeling or avoiding someone on the corner of a street who exhibits unusual behaviors, you can help them with having this training.

"Vermont state hospitals are small and they face mental health challenges," he said. "We want to be able to support and welcome people, not frighten or put them off. When someone is in a crisis, we want to help them instead of crossing the street to avoid them."

A couple of hundred community members have utilized the training.

About 23,000 of 600,000 Vermont residents lived with a serious mental illness and the state's public mental health system offered services to 14 percent of those adults six years ago, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness State Advocacy in 2010. However, the Department of Mental Health has sectors that treat this issue with Community Rehabilitation and Treatment (CRT), adult outpatient services, emergency services, immediate response, clinic-based treatment, outreach treatment, family support and prevention consultations.

Mental Health First Aid has shown to reduce the social distance created by negative attitudes and perceptions of individuals with mental illnesses, Provenza said.

The National Council for Behavioral Health operates Mental Health First Aid USA in association with the Missouri Department of Mental Health.

For more information on upcoming training sessions visit ucsvt.org. Per individual the training costs $40 and a reference book is provided.

— Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.


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