By Linda Shepard
What’s in your first aid kit?
Most likely you have a good supply of band-aids, some antiseptic ointment, and perhaps over-the-counter medications. If you purchased one of those ready-made kits, it may even have one of those handy information cards that tells you how to assist someone who is choking or needs CPR.
But does your kit contain supplies to help someone who is developing a mental health problem, a substance use challenge, or who is going through a mental health crisis? Is your kit stocked with ways to connect a distressed person with the right resources? And most importantly, does your kit supply you with the tools you need to help a person who is contemplating committing suicide?
Unfortunately, you can’t go to the local pharmacy and purchase supplies that will equip you to help a person in these situations. The good news is that there is a way you can acquire the skills and confidence you need to provide first aid until appropriate treatment and support are available or until the crisis resolves.
Why Mental Health First Aid?
Mental health problems are very common in the lives of people around us, and it’s important to be prepared. Professional help is not always immediately on hand and we may need to step in during a crisis to help someone. Many people are not well informed about how to recognize mental health problems, how to respond, or what effective treatments are available. And there are many wrong ideas and misunderstandings surrounding the topic of mental health. Common myths include the idea that people with mental disorders can use willpower to pull themselves out of their problems, or that only weak people experience these types of challenges. Lack of education and knowledge can often result in denial and avoidance when we think we recognize something amiss.
Even when people seek treatment, many wait for years before doing so. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, there can be long delays – sometimes decades – between the first appearance of symptoms and when people get help.1 For example, research shows that half the people who seek help for depression delay seeking help for eight years or more. There can be multiple reasons for this delay, including access to resources, the cost, and the stigma associated with mental health problems. Studies show that the longer the delay in getting help, the more difficult recovery can be. That is why it is important for people to get support from their family, friends, and community as soon as possible2.
Many Alaskans know about these challenges first-hand. The behavioral health of Alaskans includes both mental health disorders and substance use disorders. The statistics about our population are sobering. According to the 2018 Mental Health Trust Score Card, the 2016 suicide rate in Alaska was 87% higher than the U.S. rate3. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists Alaska as having the second-highest suicide rate in the nation, just behind Montana4. Mental health issues are not just a local challenge in our home state, but they are also pervasive within the nation as a whole.
Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Institutes of Mental Health inform us as well. Research shows that mental illnesses are common in the United States, affecting tens of millions of people each year. In recent years, the WHO has compared the relative impact of different illnesses across the world and looked at what health conditions cause the greatest disability and disease burden. Neuropsychiatric disorders (including mental, behavioral, and neurological disorders) are the leading cause of disability in the U.S., followed by cardiovascular and circulatory diseases and neoplasms. Of the different mental disorders, depression is the single biggest cause of disability5.
You may be asking, so how can I equip myself and gather the tools I need to round out my first aid skills and make sure they include mental health? One of the best ways to do this is by attending a course in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). Similar to attending a CPR or First Aid course, you will learn and practice the skills needed to feel confident and provide assistance. The course teaches you about the risk factors and warning signs of mental health and substance use problems. It provides information on depression, anxiety, trauma, psychosis, and substance use disorders. The course is interactive and gives participants an opportunity to practice skills through scenarios, discussions, and other activities. You will walk out of the course with a 5-step action plan and a solid knowledge of ways to connect a distressed person with an evidence-based professional, peer, and self-help resources.
By making your first aid kit more complete, you may have the opportunity to help someone who is experiencing a mental health problem, assist them to find information and connect with resources. Most importantly, the person will know that they are not alone. Ultimately, a more complete Mental Health First Aid kit may even help you recognize a problem early on and perhaps even save someone’s life. With the right training, you could be the one to make the critical difference.
 National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers
 Mental Health First Aid: https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/
 US Burden of Disease Collaborators. The State of US Health, 1920-2010: Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/disability/us-leading-categories-of-diseases-disorders.shtml
Why Mental Health First Aid for Older Adults?
Older adults are at higher risk for mental illnesses that have not been identified or treated. They and their family members may have no idea that their despair is tied to an undiagnosed mental health problem, and may attribute their symptoms to “normal” aging.
Older adults are the highest consumers of over the counter and prescription medications. More than 25 percent of older adults use prescriptions that have abuse potential. Yet, substance abuse is under-recognized and undertreated in the older adult population.
It is common for older adults to lose important social relationships for reasons such as death, illness, geographical moves, transportation challenges and more. Isolation is the primary driver of late-life depression. It is very important for older adults to have a support system in place as they face difficult situations.
The rate of delirium and dementia are much higher in later life and often include psychosis. It is important to be able to recognize the symptoms of psychosis and ensure the individual is assessed by a trained health care professional.
Emergency Resources and Support
Anchorage Police (EMERGENCY)
Always dial 911 if there is a threat of suicide or of violence or harm to self or others. Always explain that the situation involves mental illness and request a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officer. CIT officers are trained in mental health de-escalation techniques to assist individuals affected by mental illness and their families.
Anchorage Police (Non-Emergency)
In case of non-emergency situations involving mental health, you can request a CIT officer for a welfare check. Explain the situation to the dispatcher and request a CIT officer. They will be sent whenever they are available.
311 or 907-786-8900
The Alaska Careline
You can call if you are concerned about someone, or you can encourage the person to call. There is also a text option. You can find more information on the Alaska Careline website. This service is free and available 24 hours, 7 days a week.
Text 4help to 839863 3-11p.m.
Tuesday – Saturday
National Alliance on Mental Illness
24 Hour Crisis Hotline – 907-563-3200
or text “NAMI” to 741741
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline:
24 Hour Veterans Crisis Line
For veterans, service members, National Guard, and Reserve, their family members, and friends.
1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 to talk to someone.
Text 838255 to connect with a VA responder.
Where can I find a Mental Health First Aid Course?
Mental Health First Aid USA
National Council on Behavioral Health
The Alaska Training Cooperative
Offers courses around the state of Alaska, including courses specific to youth, older adults, veterans, and first responders.
The Alzheimer’s Resource of Alaska
Offers courses specific to Older Adults experiencing mental health and substance use issues.