My Turn: Mental health first aid

What is stigma?

The dictionary defines it as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.”

Stigma is a word that has the power to isolate people and stop people from asking for help, even when they need it. When it comes to the stigma associated with depression, thoughts of suicide and other mental health issues, a person can feel especially alone.

It is hard to ask for help when we are feeling sad, depressed or suicidal. Asking for help can be scary. We don’t know how someone will respond. Asking for help can also somehow imply weakness, physically and/or emotionally. So we don’t ask. We want to handle it ourselves and we hope for the best.

Sometimes the outcome is OK and we can move the couch through the door. Or, in the “I can do this myself” scenario, we ruin the cushions or the walls. But sometimes not asking for help means depression goes untreated and the outcome is final: suicide. The impact on family and friends is huge.

What can we do to change the stigma around mental health?

First, let’s talk about it. Let’s discuss the fact that nearly everyone struggles with mental health issues at some point in their lives or is affected by someone who is struggling. It’s OK to be human and have issues. Let’s encourage those who are struggling to reach out for help when they need it. And let’s learn more about what we can do to help someone in crisis.

Since 2011 more than 1,000 people in El Dorado County have completed the Mental Health First Aid Training course. Just as CPR training helps a person with no clinical training to assist an individual following a heart attack, Mental Health First Aid training helps a person assist someone experiencing a mental health crisis such as contemplating suicide. In both situations the goal is to help support an individual until appropriate professional help arrives.

Mental Health First Aiders learn a five-step strategy that includes assessing risk, respectfully listening to and supporting the individual in crisis and identifying appropriate professional help and other supports.

Participants are also introduced to risk factors and warning signs for mental health or substance use problems; they engage in experiential activities that build understanding of the impact of illness on individuals and families and learn about evidence-supported treatment and self-help strategies.  The topics covered are depression, anxiety, suicide, non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), psychosis, trauma and substance use.

I have been privileged to teach Mental Health First Aid here in El Dorado County. The feedback has been consistently positive.  Participants of the training say things like, “I did not know what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised.” “I feel much more prepared in both recognizing and responding to someone in crisis.” “This training is relevant and meaningful to the population we work with.”

Mental Health First Aid is a training offered by a number of agencies in our region. The Behavioral Health Division of the El Dorado County Health and Human Services Agency offers the training program free of charge as a community service to residents. I am happy to answer any questions about this program. More classes are planned in the near future.

For more information about Mental Health First Aid or an upcoming class call (530) 621-6130 or email [email protected]. Information about classes in the region can also be found at

Additional information about Behavioral Health services in El Dorado can be found at

Stephanie Carlson, MBA, is the health education coordinator with El Dorado County Behavioral Health Services.

Special to Village Life


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