Mental Health First Aid strives to educate participants and end stigma

Published: August 11, 2017

Approximately one in five adults are affected by mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In Duval county alone, 161 people died by suicide in 2015. The prevalence of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder continues to increase.

In 2016, UF Health Jacksonville collaborated with Baptist Health, Brooks Rehabilitation, Mayo Clinic and St. Vincent’s Health Care to compile the Community Health Needs Assessment, or CHNA, to address the gaps that prevent access to quality, integrated health care and identify ways to improve access to resources that support a healthy lifestyle.

“The nonprofit hospitals got together and did a community-wide needs assessment, and mental health was one of the issues identified in the community,” said Lori Bilello, the associate director for the Center for Health Equity and Quality Research at the University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville.  “So the nonprofit hospitals decided to pitch in and address that need by bringing the Mental Health First Aid program to Jacksonville.”

Mental Health First Aid is a national program that teaches participants how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. The training teaches the skills needed to reach out and provide initial help and support to someone who may be developing a mental health or substance use problem or experiencing a crisis.

“As a parent and teacher I have seen a great need for education to demystify the topic of mental illness and bring compassion and accurate information regarding a subject that has many misconceptions,” said Sherry Warner, trainer for the Mental Health First Aid program.

The topic of mental illness is often met with stigma and uncertainty. The program educates participants on how to recognize if someone is in crisis and how to approach the topic of mental illness. The goal is for people to become “expert noticers” because professional help is not always immediately available and people often don’t know how to respond.

“The clear action plan that Mental Health First Aid teaches is something anyone can do and takes the fear out of helping someone,” Warner said.

Of the people impacted by mental illness, only 41 percent seek help or use mental health services in any given year, according to Mental Health First Aid. Warner explains that the reasons people don't seek help are numerous, including stigma, fear, denial, unawareness and lack of funds. Teaching Mental Health First Aid and changing the perception of mental illness is one step in the right direction.

The program was launched in Jacksonville and within the first six months 96 classes were held with a total of 1,734 participants from Baker, Clay, Duval, Flagler, Nassau, St. Johns and Volusia counties. Three have been held at UF Health Jacksonville, and the goal is to host a class every quarter. In addition to the health care organizations, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has committed to training all 3,000 of their employees. The community-wide goal is to train 10,000 people in three years.

“People should take this course to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of various mental health conditions and learn how to talk to those developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis,” Warner said. “Ultimately they should take this course to be able to direct people to appropriate professional help and be the catalyst for improving the quality of life for the 43.8 million people living with mental illness.”

To find a Mental Health First Aid course near you, visit

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