One spring day in 2021, I closed the door to our WFH office and sat down for a six-hour Zoom training to become a Mental Health First Aider.
What are you more confused about? My willingness to participate in Zoom culture (which I’d hitherto avoided like the plague … during a plague), or my newly earned title?
Mental Health First Aid Training is happening all around the globe. According to the Mentalhealthfirstaid.org website, “Mental Health First Aid is a skills-based training course that teaches participants about mental health and substance-use issues.”
Essentially, these trainings empower citizens to take a more active and compassionate role in the well-being of their colleagues, neighbors, and friends. The training is part reflection, part education, and – the largest part – practicum. Practicing how to check in on someone directly but gently. Humanity needs it.
According to a survey in my monthly Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) newsletter, “The Harris Poll on behalf of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, [claims] a staggering 43% of U.S. adults who say they needed substance use or mental health care in the past 12 months did not receive that care, and numerous barriers to access stand between them and needed treatment.”
To be sure, we were not being trained to become mental health professionals. Six hours would hardly suffice! But, we were being trained to better assess one another, and know how to guide a person in need to the right tools and resources. Per the MHFA website, “[t]o date, more than 2.5 million people across the United States are certified Mental Health First Aiders thanks to a dedicated base of 15,000 instructors.”
I learned about the program through two local instructors, Malkah Bird and Erin Polley of Rising Collective.
Malkah Bird, MEd, is certified by the National Council on Behavioral Health as a Youth and Adult Mental Health First Aid Instructor and is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist with a full-time job for Indianapolis Public Schools.
Erin Polley is an organizer and facilitator with 17 years of experience working with communities to address issues of racism, Islamophobia, income inequality, and militarism. She’s also a yoga instructor. The duo created Rising Collective during the pandemic to join forces and focalize their resources and expertise to offer training not just in Mental Health First Aid, but also in De-escalation, Bystander, and Upstander trainings. Per the Rising Collective website, “We bridge the gap between wanting to help and knowing how to.” Lately, they’ve been very busy.
Over the course of the spring, they facilitated Upstander trainings for 565 staff at 12 locations for Eskenazi Health. The trainings included all staff – doctors, nurses, Medical Assistants, administrators, and leadership. Eskenazi’s Dr. Maria Robles and Dr. Dawn Haut championed both De-escalation and Upstander trainings for the organization, relying heavily on administrator Marcia Morris who did a lot of heavy lifting in terms of organizing and facilitating such an undertaking.
I attended one of the trainings for the purposes of this article. Starting at 8:00 a.m. (facilitators and participants alike had full-time jobs starting at 9:00), the conference room was filled. Attendance was required for all staff.
What is an Upstander anyway? In the handout I was given, “Upstanders are people who fill a gap whenever vacancies arise; hold a we-ness perspective; [and] respond because of a personal responsibility.” In the world of healthcare, micro and macroaggressions arise frequently. The training was customized to meet Eskenazi’s needs for primary care. Throughout the course of the hour, Malkah and Erin led a conversation filled with examples of the microaggressions, mistreatment, and discrimination healthcare professionals often come up against. The conference room broke out into small groups, talked through different scenarios, then would come back together to discuss. They practiced how to stand up for each other (or a patient) with dignity and respect.
After all, what is the result of mistreatment in the workplace? People don’t want to come to work, people don’t feel safe, and productivity goes down – not to mention poor mental health outcomes and PTSD. Eskenazi wants different results. So do Malkah and Erin.
These can be seismic shifts, though. So often, even do-gooders remain silent because they just don’t know what to say. That’s why most of Rising Collective’s trainings are devoted to practice. If you’ve never said a phrase, how well do you think you’ll say it in the heat of the moment?
So, participants practice speaking up in the breakout groups. The overarching goal of the training is to give words to say and strategies to institute, to foster curiosity (in the well-being of colleagues) and universal positive regard, and to encourage staff to ask for support. This work cannot be done in isolation.
This summer, Rising Collective took on another huge project, training 175 people (all via Zoom) in Mental Health First Aid for the Indiana Primary Healthcare Association, who received grant funding specifically for this work.
If you or your organization are interested in these trainings, visit Rising Collective’s website for upcoming dates, follow them on Instagram @rising.collective, or email them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. My MHFA certificate will need to be renewed at the end of three years. You can bet I’ll be contacting them then, too.