Naperville health center trains 10,000 people in Mental Health First Aid

Thirty-five people spent Thursday in a training session in Naperville to spot and address the signs of a mental health crisis, and one of them was special.

Someone among the participants was the 10,000th person to complete Mental Health First Aid through a consortium of instructors affiliated with Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

The milestone means the Naperville organization has trained 21 percent of the 48,477 people who have completed the eight-hour course in Illinois since the program came to the U.S. in 2008.

Mental Health First Aid is often described as CPR for the mind. It provides background on symptoms and signs of distress so people can identify them in others and learn how to offer basic help.

"We want to teach people to be a good noticer of when someone might be displaying symptoms of any level of mental health distress," said Denise Elsbree, community liaison for Mental Health First Aid at Linden Oaks. "We're teaching people that basic set of skills on what to do to assist someone."

Just as CPR doesn't teach someone how to be a heart surgeon, Mental Health First Aid doesn't train participants to be counselors or therapists, Elsbree said. But it increases discussion about a type of illness that affects as many as one in two people during their lifetimes, according to Mental Health America, and one in five adults in any given year.

"Another goal is to destigmatize mental health so we're not thinking about mental health in some scary kind of way, but that we're understanding, it's health," Elsbree said. "Just like we would think about physical health problems, we want to think and help and respond to mental health problems in a similar way."

Linden Oaks started offering Mental Health First Aid in 2011 after Mary Lou Mastro, then president of Linden Oaks and now CEO of Edward-Elmhurst Health, began looking into it the previous year. Organized by the National Council on Behavioral Health, the program has trained nearly 1.2 million people nationwide and continues to expand.

Linden Oaks has created a consortium of 40 facilitators certified to teach Mental Health First Aid for youths or adults, and they offer programs in Naperville, Elmhurst, St. Charles, Hinsdale and Plainfield. These options likely make Linden Oaks the largest provider of the training in the region. But other hospitals, schools and nonprofit organizations are offering the program, too - many times for free.

For example, 307 staff members at East Aurora District 131 have completed mental health first aid during the last four years, using funding from a grant.

And Northwestern Medicine started teaching Mental Health First Aid in July 2015. So far, the hospital network has trained 343 people, including the entire staff of the Kane County Forest Preserve District.

Shannon McCall, a lead community outreach specialist with Northwestern Medicine who teaches Mental Health First Aid in locations such as Winfield and Geneva, said she likes the concrete nature of the action steps the training provides.

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.

"It all sounds pretty simple. Like, 'Oh, sure I can do that,'" McCall said. "But what the class does is provide how you specifically apply these strategies to mental health situations."

Amy Barth, a social worker at Naperville Central High School, has taught Mental Health First Aid to staff members in Naperville Unit District 203 through the Linden Oaks consortium. People who work with teens regularly have the opportunity to notice sudden changes in actions or troubling statements, and whenever they do, Barth said she encourages them to act.

"When you see a change in the way a person is behaving or in their mood," Barth said, "it's worth asking a question."

To find an upcoming Mental Health First Aid course, visit take-a-course/find-a-course.

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  Denise Elsbree, community liaison for Mental Health First Aid Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in Naperville, has helped teach many of the 10,000 participants who have taken the eight-hour course through Linden Oaks since 2011. Bev Horne/, 2015
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