Course helps people spot mental illness

Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 8:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 8:45 p.m.

If your neighbor was having a heart attack, you wouldn't think twice about calling 911. But what if your neighbor was visibly upset? Would you try to get help, or walk away?

A lot of people would probably walk away, but if they have some understanding of what the distressed person is going through, they would be much more inclined to step in and get help.

A national program called Mental Health First Aid gives people a crash course in spotting mental illnesses and knowing how to respond to people in crisis situations.

"It primes us as gatekeepers, which means we are watching out for each other," said Joe Munson, a first aid instructor with Gainesville-based Meridian Behavioral Healthcare.

The program started in Australia in 2001 and in 2008 was introduced in the U.S. Local demand for the course has increased in the past couple of months, following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, Munson said. He gives the 12-hour course to small groups — between 10 and 20 people. Nurses, law enforcement personnel and school and university employees are especially on the front lines of dealing with crisis situations, Munson said.

Munson recently spoke to a group of city employees of the solid waste division who are interested in taking the course. When he asked who knew CPR, everyone raised their hands, but for most, Munson's talk was their introduction to the signs of mental illnesses.

"As a society, we know how to take care of people medically more than emotionally," Munson said.

The course covers signs of depression, psychosis, schizophrenia and substance abuse, among other disorders. It covers basic body language, eye contact and posture that might be tied to these conditions.

Active listening is one key to responding to the person in distress, and then calling for help.

When in doubt, Munson touts 211 — the nationwide information number — as the best resource.

According to Karyn Congressi, the assistant to the president at Florida Gateway College in Lake City, who recently took the course with other members of college management, "(The course) is not making us into a psychologist, but gives you some first steps in how to handle a situation should you feel you see signs."

For example, they could respond to signs of eating disorders, or depression — that may come across in a student's withdrawal from class or expressed in writing through their papers.

"If they are writing about suicide, or abuse, then the instructor has the ability to say, ‘I may need to talk to student,' " Congressi said.

She added that the college hopes to have the faculty take the course by the next academic school year.

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or

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