ALLOUEZ — We live in especially difficult times. Not just because of a pandemic that has lasted over a year, but we are also coping with the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2021, the end of a 20-year war in Afghanistan and face continued divisiveness on many issues. All this leads to stress and even potential illness, both physical and mental.
Aware of this growing need for mental health assistance, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay is adding a new tool to its toolbox to assist people around northeast Wisconsin who are experiencing stress and mental health concerns. According to Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services, only four of the 16 counties in this diocese have enough psychiatrists to meet current needs (Brown, Forest, Shawano and Winnebago). And the same shortage exists with other mental health care providers.
“Up north, and in all corners of the diocese, there is a mental health shortage — not enough counselors, not enough therapists,” said Jesse Brunette, Integrated Crisis and Community Services coordinator for Catholic Charities. “We do offer those services through Catholic Charities, but, unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to put a counselor in each of the communities. So we had to look for different methods.”
One of those methods is Mental Health First Aid. Catholic Charities started training in this type of frontline, common person approach to mental health this year in Marinette in August and a second 8-hour training session Sept. 22 at the diocesan offices. More training is planned in the Shawano area at Sacred Heart Parish on Thursday, Oct. 28, and around the diocese on a monthly, yet to be determined schedule. This would include at least one Zoom option.
“Mental Health First Aid” is meant to teach the average person “how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders,” according to mentalhealthfirstaid.org, the credentialing agency for Catholic Charities. The training is meant to help people identify and support those who may be in an emotional crisis or have mental health issues.
Brunette explained the training as “medical first aid, or CPR, but in regard to mental health. … Think of it as creating a mental health first aid army of people, out in the communities, who are equipped to intervene in whatever mental health crisis a person is experiencing.”
Two diocesan Curia members — Alnilda Abizu, Catholic Charities’ agency intake/case management specialist, and Gloria Koth, priest nurse and health care advocate — were trained by Mental Health First Aid as facilitators who can now train parish staff, school staff, clergy, members of apostolates like St. Vincent de Paul and interested individuals “on how to have a basic understanding of the mental health challenges people struggle with,” according to Brunette.
“Mental Health First Aid training helps break the stigma that surrounds mental illness,” Abizu explained, “and opens the door for those who are experiencing challenges to be heard and to seek help. Our community, because of the (pandemic) lockdown and because of just being more afraid to be out, people are keeping to themselves and some mental health challenges are increasing. And one of the things that is needed to open up the door is for people to know that there is help available.”
The training prepares “first aiders” in five steps, known by the acronym ALGEE.
“Mental Health First Aiders are trained to Assess, Listen, Give reassurance and information, Encourage professional help and Encourage self-help and other support strategies,” Koth explained.
Abizu explained some of the signs first-aiders are trained to spot: “Changes in behavior, sometimes it’s immediate changes, withdrawing, not enjoying daily activities, experiencing some depression, experiencing some trouble. … By just noticing these changes and asking the questions they learn during the training, they are opening the door, allowing somebody to express how they feel.”
Just talking about mental health can put some people on edge. Also, the thought of being trained as a Mental Health First Aider might seem way out of someone’s frame of reference. However, this is not true, both Koth and Abizu stressed.
“Mental Health First Aiders are just like first-aid CPR trainees,” said Abizu. “They are not trained to diagnose. We are trained to provide information and to refer to mental health help.”
She likened it to any other health training, such as using an automated external defibrillator (AED) or the Heimlich maneuver. She then gave a concrete example, explaining, “Say I am working at my parish or with the school and I see all these families with financial difficulties and … they always look withdrawn.” That ability to notice something is wrong, means that person is “fit to take the mental health first aid training,” Abizu said, adding that training would let one know how to reach out to those families.
“Oftentimes we are afraid to bring up the topic (of mental health),” Koth noted, “or have a conversation, just passing (symptoms) off as ‘a bad day’ or joking about a certain repeated response. It is important to recognize signs that someone may be having a mental health challenge and be willing to talk with them.”
Brunette agreed that there is fear of talking about mental challenges. “Unfortunately, in many of our communities, for a variety of reasons, discussing mental health struggles hasn’t been easy to do. So this course, this training, equips people to look for signs for ways to begin a conversation, to be aware of the resources within each community to refer people to.”
Even though training just started, Brunette and the two trainers have already seen positive results.
“When I took the Mental Health First Aid training,” Koth said, “I never expected to need to put the tools into action within a few weeks. However, with the training I received and the confidence about using the tools learned in the training, I was able to help an individual who was experiencing a mental health crisis.”
Brunette also had someone reach out to him right after the training. “This person only knew that because of that training.”
Abizu said the first aid training is especially helpful for more rural parishes. “When you look at our northern counties, our more rural areas, there are limited resources and limits for people to be able to reach out to services. So, when we train our parishes, our secretaries, our clergy, and they work with someone experiencing a mental health challenge, they are able to offer the information, the emotional support and the practical resources that they need.”
Mental Health First Aid training is offered free of charge by the diocese through a grant from the Catholic Foundation. Brunette stressed that the training is just part of the new service delivery model Catholic Charities has developed to serve more people out in the communities in each county.
“We can cover more ground with that flexibility,” Brunette said. “This is just one of the tools in our toolbox. If there is another way we can help mental health outcomes in our communities, maybe we can get trained in those as well. We’re serving people by serving people so they can serve more people. … (It’s) a way to increase our positive impact on our communities.”
For more information on the Mental Health First Aid training, contact Brunette at [email protected] or Almilda Abizu at Catholic Charities at (877) 500-3580 (toll-free in the diocese) or (920) 272-8234.