09/02/2016 05:17 EDT | Updated 09/02/2016 05:59 EDT

Mental Health First Aid Fights Stigma And Saves Lives

monkeybusinessimages via Getty Images
Teenage Girl Visits Doctor's Office Suffering With Depression Upset

There's a deadline looming at your office. Stressed by his workload and afraid of being fired, your colleague starts to panic, breathing rapidly. It might be an anxiety attack.

What do you do?

A close friend has been depressed, absent and withdrawn for weeks. Suddenly you get a chipper phone call. Would you recognize the mood shift as a potential warning sign?

What would you say?

You don't have to be a passive bystander, struggling for words or paralyzed by ignorance.

If your co-worker had a heart attack or your friend broke an ankle, the protocol would be pretty clear. Stabilize an injured limb; wrap and elevate a wound. Administer CPR, if properly trained. Call 911. But what about mental health crises like the ones above, described to us by mental health first aid trainers?

Unlike blocked arteries or broken bones, mental illness is shrouded in stigma. People are reluctant to talk about it and, when confronted with someone in crisis, few know what to do. Still, odds are much greater that you'll encounter someone with an anxiety disorder or depression than someone with heart disease. Statistically, mental illness affects much more of the population -- one in five Canadians.

You don't have to be a passive bystander, struggling for words or paralyzed by ignorance. You can become a mental health first responder.

Mental health first aid (MFHA) teaches Canadians what to do in an emergency, breaking down fears and myths to increase awareness of mental illness. The basic MFHA training course takes two days, and is available across Canada through trainers certified by Mental Health First Aid Canada (fees for the course vary).

First aiders learn an exercise for hyperventilating panic victims: they should focus on your hand as you raise and lower it to help them control their breathing. A panic attack and a heart attack have some similar physical symptoms; always call 911 just in case.

Through discussion and interactive role play, MFHA training breaks down the discomfort involved in talking about mental illnesses like depression. More importantly, participants learn to ask hard but vital questions. It's not best to avoid the subject.

MFHA certified trainer Denise Waligora told us about one of her students, a career counsellor whose client confessed that he was depressed. Thanks to her training, she knew to come right out and ask: "Are you thinking about suicide?"

He was.

The counsellor probed further and learned her client had already made a suicide plan. She recognized a high-risk situation, assessing the likelihood that he would follow through with it using targeted questions. It was high. She took him to a hospital, one listed in her training as having proper facilities.

Some weeks later, when the man was released, he told the counsellor she'd saved his life.

With a better understanding of mental illness, unburdened by stigma or the myth that she should avoid certain subjects, this MHFA graduate had the confidence and the compassion to intervene.

First aid is a powerful act of compassion -- caring about others' pain and taking action to heal it.

Trainers like Waligora teach their students to recognize signs and symptoms of mental illnesses in four areas: mood disorders, anxiety, addiction and substance abuse, and psychotic disorders. Myths -- like the belief that people suffering psychotic issues are always violent -- are demolished.

MHFA Canada is now developing first aid courses tailored to the cultural differences and special circumstances that face groups like First Nations, Inuit, seniors, and veterans.

Critically, first aiders are made aware of the mental health resources available locally, so they can refer those in crisis to the appropriate contacts.

Just as a first aid kit doesn't replace doctors and hospitals, MFHA isn't a substitute for professional mental health care. Canada still needs to invest much more in facilities and treatment programs.

First aid is a powerful act of compassion -- caring about others' pain and taking action to heal it. Whether it's a broken bone or a wounded mind, if someone is hurting, wouldn't you want to know what to do?

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook


10 Quotes That Perfectly Sum Up The Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness