Mental health classes spreading as communities notice needs

Education emphasizes reaching out

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the schools in Crystal Lake High School District 155 affected by recent student suicides. The schools are Crystal Lake Central and Crystal Lake South.

Two teen suicides in McHenry County. A startling increase in heroin deaths in DuPage County and elsewhere.

These are among the triggers that started perhaps more discussion than ever in the suburbs about a problem affecting as many as half of us: Mental illness.

But it's more than talk. Education is becoming more readily available in the form of Mental Health First Aid classes, which offer the equivalent of CPR for the mind.

The classes help counteract the stigma, misunderstandings and misrepresentations surrounding mental health, instructors say. And they could encourage young people with undiagnosed conditions - who sometimes suffer 10 years or longer before getting help - to seek assistance sooner.

"The more people that recognize what's going on and are able to reach out and help other people, I think the better outcomes we're going to have," said Wende Pannell, a therapist at the Association for Individual Development in Aurora. "We've heard so many horrible things in the news lately; if one person had just said 'Are you OK?' maybe some of these things wouldn't have happened."

Health departments, hospitals and nonprofits are offering more Mental Health First Aid classes in places such as Naperville, Crystal Lake, Wheaton, Lombard and Aurora as these communities see the growing need.

"We're really campaigning to create awareness and education, reduce stigma and provide resources," said Heather Diab, a certified recovery support specialist with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in McHenry County.

An increased focus on Mental Health First Aid is part of a community response to a local tragedy: In March, two teens died by suicide three days apart. Both attended schools in Crystal Lake High School District 155. "Because of what happened," Diab said, "we believe that everybody needs to be trained."

Now is the time to improve knowledge about mental health, especially as it relates to adolescents, advocates say. And that's not just because May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It's because everyone needs to know how to identify signs and symptoms of mental illnesses, how to defuse crisis situations, and how to direct those in need toward treatment and support.

"The idea is that you will recognize when a young person might be developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis, and you will have some basic skills to interact with that person," said Denise Elsbree, Mental Health First Aid community liaison for Linden Oaks at Edward behavioral health in Naperville, where a growing focus on mental health education is part of community efforts to prevent heroin overdose deaths in a relatively affluent and well-educated county that saw 117 people die from the drug between 2012 and 2014.

Experts who lead Mental Health First Aid classes, such as Amy Barth, social worker at Naperville Central High School, say the sessions are a step toward building an educated population that can better respond to mental health needs.

"Learning more can help us be understanding," she said.

<h3 class="breakHead">Noticing the need</h3>

Anyone who gets mental health training is likely to use it, Barth said.

Mental health conditions will affect one in two people during their lifetimes, according to Mental Health America, and one in five adults in any given year. So the odds of encountering someone who needs help are high.

"If you run across somebody in the mall who's having a panic attack, would you know what to do?" Diab said. "Most people don't."

The National Council for Behavioral Health has been trying to change that lack of knowledge since 2008, when it adapted Mental Health First Aid, a training program that started in Australia. Since then, roughly 400,000 people nationwide have been trained in recognizing symptoms and responding appropriately, said Bryan Gibb, director of public education.

Resources are starting to become available for expansion of the classes, which are offered in various segments that outline different approaches that may be applicable to youth, adults or veterans.

The profile of Mental Health First Aid rose a few steps in March when first lady Michelle Obama participated in a training session, saying, "It really gives you the skills you need to identify - and ultimately help - someone in need. Because you never know when these kinds of skills might be useful."

Gibb said mental health awareness among educators, availability of $15 million a year in federal money, and safety concerns because of violent acts committed by a small number of people with mental illnesses are combining to increase interest.

"Now demand is so much we can barely keep up," Gibb said. "There's always been a need, I think we're just becoming more attuned to that need."

<h3 class="breakHead">Spotting the signs</h3>

Linden Oaks in Naperville has been responding to the need for mental health education since 2011, when it began offering Mental Health First Aid to the first of roughly 5,200 people it has trained. The behavioral health center works with school districts and nonprofits to inform people about ways to direct teens with signs of mental illness toward help - before they abuse drugs or attempt suicide. In short, before it's too late.

Facilitators say participants are mainly women, many of whom work with children in their careers or are parents of a child with a mental illness. People such as Beverly Jones of Plainfield sign up for the classes hoping to spot the sneaky signs that something is amiss in a loved one's mind.

"It's never clear" when a mental illness is setting in, said Jones, whose family includes members with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and psychosis. "What I really liked about the class was they simplified it."

Jones said facilitators gave clear examples of behaviors that might signal something is going wrong. One sign is sudden loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities. Another is drastic lifestyle changes. And when words and expressions don't match - such as, if someone is smiling while making an angry statement or sharing great news with a frown - a mental illness could be taking hold.

Mental Health First Aid participants brainstorm signs and symptoms starting with every letter of the alphabet, and they learn appropriate first steps to take when someone displays those indicators.

Someone experiencing a mental health problem might be aggressive or bulimic. He or she might be cranky or down, elevated or fighting, or any number of unusual or obsessive behaviors.

Participants learn to follow a list of steps if they see those signs in anyone they encounter.

First, assess the risk for suicide or harm. Then listen without judgment. Give reassurance. Encourage the person in need to seek appropriate professional help. And encourage them to find support and employ self-help strategies.

<h3 class="breakHead">'You may be first'</h3>

In the months after the March suicides of students at Crystal Lake Central and Crystal Lake South high schools in District 155, Mental Health First Aid classes were filled with community members wanting to feel empowered to prevent future tragedies, Diab said.

Her organization has trained 800 people since 2009, and facilitators are hoping to ramp up education efforts.

This mirrors a broader trend, as the National Council on Behavioral Health aims to train 400,000 people this year, which would double the number who have been trained since the program started.

People who complete the eight-hour training sessions don't learn to be clinicians or diagnose mental health conditions, just as someone who takes a CPR class doesn't become a doctor or conduct heart surgery. But the growing group of trained teachers, police officers and parents become helpful first-responders, Barth told participants she recently instructed.

"It's the initial help that we're offering a young person when they're developing a mental health issue or are in a crisis in a particular moment," Barth said. "You may be the first person to suggest that there's help out there."

Help can come from a counselor at school or a doctor at a behavioral health center such as Linden Oaks. It can come from a nonprofit such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness or from any adult who remembers to listen, reassure and provide support, said Janet Miskovic of Naperville, a parent who recently completed a Mental Health First Aid class.

"When adolescents can see that you're comfortable and you're confident and you're right there," Miskovic said, "that can calm them down and bring out their confidence to discuss what might be bothering them."

Help: Michelle Obama took Mental Health First Aid training in March

Forum examines what's behind heroin epidemic

Naperville parent series to explore effects of cyberbullying on mental health

Linden Oaks is set to celebrate 25 years

Mental health resources

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

  Amy Barth, a social worker at Naperville Central High School and Judy Smith, a retired school nurse, teach a Mental Health First Aid class offered through Linden Oaks Behavioral Health and Naperville Unit District 203. Bev Horne/
  Kayleen Smith and Beverly Jones try to guess the age when different mental health conditions set in. Amy Barth, a Mental Health First Aid instructor and social worker at Naperville Central High School, listens to their answers during recent training about first responses to mental health crises. Bev Horne/
  Denise Elsbree, community liaison for Mental Health First Aid at Linden Oaks at Edward Behavioral Health, leads participants in an exercise during a recent class offered through Naperville Unit District 203. Mental Health First Aid classes are becoming more common across the suburbs as communities recognize the need for more knowledge about how to respond during a crisis and direct those in need to adequate help. Bev Horne/
  Mental Health First Aid classes include role-playing and other exercises designed to help participants learn how to identify when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis and direct them toward appropriate help. Bev Horne/

Mental health: A growing concern

As pressures build on young people, the heroin epidemic rages on and veterans return from service, the importance of understanding and assisting people with mental health issues has skyrocketed. In an occasional series, the Daily Herald explores how the suburbs respond to conditions of the mind. Today, we examine a relatively new approach: Mental Health First Aid classes.

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