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Mental Health First-Aid Training: As Critical for Idaho as CPR

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First-aid training in mental health can be as critical as learning CPR when living in a state with suicide rates as high as Idaho's. - OPTUM IDAHO
  • Optum Idaho
  • First-aid training in mental health can be as critical as learning CPR when living in a state with suicide rates as high as Idaho's.
While a first-aid class offers instruction on what to do when someone is having a heart attack, The Speedy Foundation and Optum Idaho believe mental first-aid training is just as critical. The organizations came together to offer training sessions that equip students with an action plan on how to recognize and assist someone in a mental health crisis. The 12-hour courses help students learn to identify different types of mental illness like depression, eating disorders, substance abuse and anxiety; and how to assess for risk of self harm or suicide; how to listen non-judgmentally and how to get assistance when needed.

"It helps people to recognize the signs: what people are saying or hinting at," said Georganne Benjamin, the communications director for Optum Idaho, an organization that manages outpatient mental health services for Idahoans enrolled in Medicaid through the Idaho Behavioral Health Plan. "It might not be obvious to most people, but if you've gone through this, you've been trained to see and respond to those types of signs."

The Speedy Foundation, which was founded after three-time Olympic skier and Boise native Jeret "Speedy" Peterson committed suicide in 2011, agreed to help Optum Idaho offer training sessions across the state during the past year. So far, sessions have taken place in Boise, Idaho Falls, Salmon, Weiser, Shoshone, Montpelier, Idaho City and Grangeville.

"Our goal in launching the program was to really bring it to rural communities, where access to services are not as available as larger cities," Benjamin said. 

The mental health first-aid training sessions offered by Optum Idaho have helped people who work in law enforcement, schools and parishes.  - OPTUM IDAHO
  • Optum Idaho
  • The mental health first-aid training sessions offered by Optum Idaho have helped people who work in law enforcement, schools and parishes.
While the signs of mental-health crisis may not be as obvious as a heart attack, Benjamin stressed the importance of these sessions for "any individual that interacts with community members."

Many people who work in law enforcement, schools and parishes have undergone the training, Benjamin said.

"This can help people get to services earlier, before it is a crisis," she said. "It can put them on the path of recovery."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate for middle-aged people in Idaho increased 53 percent between 1999 and 2010, making it the third highest in the nation for that demographic. Suicide is the second leading cause for Idahoans age 15-34. The Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho found that in 2013, nearly one in seven Idaho high-school students reported seriously considering suicide. By offering mental first-aid courses, Optum Idaho and The Speedy Foundation hope to curb that.

The next training sessions will be held at the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Owyhee County on Thursday, July 30 and Friday, July 31, and then in September in Challis. The sessions are free, but registration is required. The maximum number of attendees per class is 25, and the Duck Valley course already has 20 people signed up. Some of the sessions that have been held throughout the state have even needed waiting lists. 

Optum Idaho hopes to offer a Spanish-language course in Caldwell, and also hopes to begin holding courses for youth and young adults.

"We have a lot of compelling stories for why we think this training is valuable and why we continue to do them," Benjamin said.