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Participation soaring in mental health first aid classes

By Dan Kraker

MPR News 91.3 FM

DULUTH — A new kind of first aid class is soaring in participation across Minnesota and the nation, as tens of thousands of people seek training in how to help people with mental illness and perhaps slow the incidence of shootings in public places.

Enrollment in mental health first aid classes has jumped nearly 40 percent in the past year, boosted in part by President Obama, who endorsed the training for all teachers following the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, where a gunman killed 20 children and six teachers.

People with mental illness often report feeling isolated and alone, in part because most people have little idea of what to do or say to someone dealing with psychiatric issues.

Diane Dinndorf Friebe, of Two Harbors, Minn., discovered that first hand several years ago. After working out at her gym one day, became so depressed she collapsed to the floor, sobbing. Person after person just walked past without saying a word, until finally a woman approached her.

"She walked up to me and said, ‘Can I help you at all? Is there anything I can do?’" Friebe recalled. "Then she said, ‘I’ll leave you alone, but if you need anything else, I will check back in a little bit.’"

For Friebe, 61, that simple gesture stands out, even years later. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was in her 20s, Friebe recently attended a mental health first aid class in Duluth, so she could offer the help she once received.

The curriculum was imported to the United States about five years ago. Since then more than 100,000 people nationwide have received the 12 hour training, according to the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. The classes teach people to recognize and respond to signs and symptoms of mental health disorders, from depression to schizophrenia.

"We’re not treating, not diagnosing, we’re just looking at how as a mental health first aider we can reach out and say, ‘I’m concerned about you; this is what I see,’ " said Lee Berlinquette, who teaches the classes through the University of Minnesota Duluth.

The school is considering making them part of the training for resident assistants in first-year student dorms. But it offers the classes to anyone, from college professors and social service workers to pastors and police officers.

During the class Berlinquette leads an exercise where she tells two participants to carry on a simple conversation.

Then, she whispers into one participant’s ear to simulate what it’s like for someone to hear voices inside their head.

"Don’t trust her; she’s following you," Berlinquette says. "Why are you talking to her?"

When one participant asks the other to describe a daughter, Berlinquette whispers, "She’s out to get you."

Afterwards Berlinquette tells students to imagine hearing not just one but several voices.

"So it may take as a mental health first aider a lot more patience and time to get through to that person, because they can still hear what you’re saying, it’s just going to take longer," she said.

Minnesota already requires foster care parents and teachers to receive training on the early warning signs of mental illnesses. Since 2009 the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota, has offered the first aid classes for free with funding from the state Legislature. Minnesota is one of more than 20 states that provide funding for the training.

So far, NAMI has trained 824 people in Minnesota, Executive Director Sue Abderholden said.

"The more we normalize this, and talk about it, make it OK to talk about it, I think the greater the opportunity there is for people to seek treatment early," Abderholden said.

The Legislature also just appropriated $45,000 for new mental health first aid training geared specifically toward teenagers and young adults.

That’s the population that most interests, Carmen Latterell, a math professor at UMD and a mom to a 12 year old. She attended the recent class in Duluth, in part because she regrets how she has responded to students who she suspects were struggling with mental illness.

"I didn’t know what to say," Latterall said. "I didn’t know if it was any of my business and I suppose there was part of me that thought well they should just buck up and do what they’re supposed to be doing."

What’s important she said, to try to have the person’s best interests at heart.

"It’s probably hard to say the wrong thing," Latterall said. "Probably saying anything helps."