In a crowded Chinese restaurant a few years ago, a colleague saw his panic-struck brother grab at his own throat – a telltale sign he was choking. He instinctively applied the Heimlich maneuver, dislodging the offending piece of broccoli.
He learned the Heimlich in a first aid class, which was clearly time and money well spent.
We heavily invest in prevention, early intervention and awareness for every conceivable disease from the neck down. Like my colleague and millions of others, we train adults and children in CPR and First Aid because choking and bad car accidents happen, often without warning.
Yet somehow, when it comes to mental illnesses, we take everything we know about prevention, early intervention and emergency response and throw it out the window. The subtext is that the issues caused by these diseases are someone’s fault, or that people need to just pull themselves together, or that “it will never happen to me.”
Members of Congress, aware of the kind of mental health crises that are all too commonplace, are pushing bipartisan legislation that will help create a nation of well-informed mental health first responders, a nation of people who know what alcohol abuse looks like, how to handle and support someone having hallucinations, what to do to truly assess someone for risk of suicide.
The Mental Health First Aid Act, championed by Reps. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS) and Doris Matsui (D-CA), requires the federal mental health agency to award grants to initiate and sustain mental health awareness training. Individuals eligible for inclusion in training would include teachers, law enforcement, emergency personnel and veterans who are likely to be confronted with Americans experiencing a mental health crisis.
The goal of Mental Health First Aid is to train those individuals in how to safely de-escalate crisis situations, recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness, and encourage timely referral to mental health services.
Sometimes the person in crisis is you.
An 18-year old girl in Central California was giving away her possessions and was on the verge of suicide when she realized she might be pregnant. Having just taken the Mental Health First Aid course in her art class, she realized she was in deep trouble, saw a counselor and got help. She readily admits that had she not taken the class and realized the symptoms of her own mental illness she would not be here today.
Because of Mental Health First Aid training, her suicide note did not become her tragic last words, but a school art project and a poignant symbol of how we can all save lives, and save souls, and sometimes save ourselves.
One in five Americans will experience a mental health condition in the course of any given year. Mental illness is a disorder just like any other – it can be acute, or chronic. It can be mild, or severe. It can have roots in biology, genetics or life experience – like the death of a parent or a nearby terrorist attack.
And it can happen to you. It can happen to your children. It can happen to your neighbor, your friend, your coworker.
What was my colleague’s brother supposed to do when he was choking at that restaurant? Make an appointment with a gastroenterologist to remove the food stuck in his throat? Funding treatment services and supporting public education for emergency response are not trade-offs, just like teaching the Heimlich maneuver and financing specialty medical care are not a zero-sum game. We can and must do both.
Mental illnesses should be treated no differently than physical ailments. When someone you know is hearing voices that aren’t there, or drowning in grief from the death of a child, or experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress from the loss of his fellow soldiers, you need to know how to help them in the heat of a crisis moment.
We all do.
Linda Rosenberg is president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health