By Michelle Wagner
Most people are familiar with CPR, the lifesaving technique that is taught throughout the world and learned by medical professionals as well as lay people. Working as a nurse for nearly two decades, I have recertified in CPR, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, time and time again. While I have always been grateful that we pay such close attention to helping in this emergency situation, it was only after my two older sons were diagnosed with bipolar disorder that I recognized how crucial it is to be able to support individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. I have realized how unfair and damaging it is that have we overlooked this equally critical aspect of health.
In this picture, I am standing at a busy intersection in Concord, New Hampshire. It is the same intersection where my oldest son was in 2010 when he was having a manic crisis. Just before ending up in that street, he had emptied my medicine cabinet of over the counter medication and supplements, downing as many of the pills as he could take. He was in crisis, as real and critical as someone having a heart attack. He knew he needed help, but because of symptoms, he was unable to effectively let people know that. Instead, he went to Main Street and started throwing CDs at cars and yelling. Most motorists swerved around him, and some yelled back. He could have been hit. An accident might have occurred. There was only one woman who stopped and offered help. She sat and talked with him until the police arrived. She was exactly what my son needed that day. He was in crisis, and he needed someone who cared and knew what to do. What I learned from that incident is we need more people like that good woman, those who are willing and able to offer help. There is a way to get people trained to provide assistance in just such a situation, and it is available through Mental Health First Aid.
Similar to CPR, Mental Health First Aid is an 8-hour training people can attend to learn how to assist those who are experiencing mental health and substance use crises. Through a campaign I posted on our Unitarian Universality crowdfunding website, Faithify, I was able to raise the $3000 I needed to attend a Mental Health First Aid instructor training in Savannah last month. The reason I wanted to become an instructor is so I can teach the 8-hour class in our churches and community groups. Statistics show that ministers are often sought out first when someone is experiencing a mental health issue, yet the training ministers have received is sometimes inadequate. Our churches are the perfect place to start shifting the view of psychological health. By welcoming conversation about mental health and intentionally including the topic throughout our church platforms, we can help make a real difference in dissipating stigma.
It is easy to talk about a person’s physical health. Sympathies run high when someone divulges that they have any one of a myriad of diseases: a heart attack, stroke, insulin dependent diabetes, cancer. These are respectable illnesses, talked about in polite company and even with strangers. There is no stigma attached to these diseases. The same is not true of mental health conditions. I found this out sharply and soundly eight years ago when my oldest son developed symptoms of psychosis. Nobody showed up at my door with a casserole. And there were only a few brave souls who would cross the threshold of the locked unit he was in. Hospitality, like that shown when my father developed cancer, did not abound, and I learned that I would be met with judgment and awkwardness if I brought up the topic with any but a few safe and trusted friends.
This is not ok. Judgment, skepticism, and criticism have no place when a person is experiencing any type of illness, and that includes mental health conditions. We need to bring mental health out of the shadows and into the light, recognizing that illnesses “below the neck” are no different, no less important, than illnesses that affect our brain chemistry. Through supporting Mental Health First Aid either by taking a class or becoming a trainer, we can help increase education and ensure that those who need our care receive it. Nobody should be ignored when they are suffering, and that includes psychologically. When Mental Health First Aid becomes a nationwide standard, just like CPR, we will know we are well on our way to overcoming stigma by finally supporting those who have been marginalized for far too long.