If you saw someone lying on the floor crying or shouting, would you know what to do? What if you saw someone in line at the grocery store having a panic attack? Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) teaches people across Texas how to help a person experiencing a mental health crisis or developing a mental health problem.

Novella Evans, a behavioral health policy specialist, says, "The training covers different types of mental illness, how to identify a problem, how to respond, how to deescalate if necessary, and how to connect someone to resources for the next step."

After completing the eight-hour interactive course, available in youth and adult versions, participants receive a certificate of training valid for three years. More than 13,000 Texans have been certified since the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) started offering the course in December 2013. Initially targeted toward educators, the course is now helping state staff, community members, parents and caregivers. DSHS will soon help incorporate the course into regular training for the Austin Police Department.

Evans compared the training to a first aid kit: It's the best tool for addressing an emergency and can help someone until they can receive more professional assistance.

People who complete the training will learn the insights behind the program's mantra, ALGEE:

  • Assess for risk of suicide or risk of harm.
  • Listen nonjudgmentally.
  • Give reassurance and information.
  • Encourage appropriate professional help.
  • Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

"When they see someone having a problem, most folks don't think they can help," said Felicia Mason-Edwards, a MHFA trainer and program specialist with DSHS. "It doesn't matter what profession you are in, you can do something to help." She stressed that one of the key components of the course was reducing stigma. Stigma hurts in two ways: it makes people afraid to help others, and it keep people who need help from seeking it.

"When something happens in the news, people want to immediately label it a mental health problem. But that just increases stigma," Mason-Edwards said. "Everyone is part of the community regardless of what mental health diagnosis they may or may not have."

The training seeks to normalize everyday occurrences. "For instance, if you are at HEB and someone is having a panic attack, what can you do in that moment? You don't have to be a therapist to help. Ask what you can do to assist them. See how you can reassure them," Mason-Edwards explains.

Evans said one of the best parts of the program was seeing a change in people's perceptions. "Mental health issues are real. People need to be equipped to not be scared or judgmental. Word is getting out to the community, and we are seeing the culture change."

To learn more or register for a course, contact your local mental health authority or Felicia Mason-Edwards. The course is free for all Texas school district employees. Anyone interested can also take the five-day Train-the-Trainer workshop to become an instructor.