By Marlene Schillinger

Most of us know the importance of knowing CPR, the Heimlich maneuver and calling 911 if we can’t help. But what happens when someone you know is having a mental health crisis? Would you be able to recognize the signs, and know what to do?

Just as CPR training teaches someone how to assist someone following a heart attack, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is an eight-hour course that provides those trained with skills to help someone developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis until professional help arrives. The training can be provided in one day, or in two four-hour sessions spaced over a short period of time.

People who sign up for MHFA training learn a five-step strategy that includes assessing risk, respectfully listening to and supporting the person in crisis, and identifying appropriate professional help and supports. Those trained learn to recognize risk factors and warning signs for mental health or substance use problems, engage in activities that build understanding of the impact of illness on individuals and families, and learn about evidence-supported treatment and self-help strategies. The goal is to train people to help someone experiencing a panic attack, to recognize and help someone who may be suicidal, or assist an individual who has overdosed. One of the most important aspects of the training is being able to practice the intervention strategy rather than just learn about it, making it easier to apply the knowledge in real-life situations.

In the past 10 years, MHFA has become an international movement. More than one million people have been trained, and the number increases daily. In 2016, the National Council for Behavioral Health (NCBH) made it a priority to train more First Aiders than ever before. Evidence shows the program builds mental health literacy, and helps the public identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illness.

Here in Buffalo, Jewish Family Service of Buffalo, Compeer of Greater Buffalo, and the Mental Health Association of Erie County have partnered to make MHFA a training a priority. Designed for non-professionals, it is geared toward all people and organizations. The training has been presented to chambers of commerce, professional associations, hospitals, nursing homes, rotary clubs, parent organizations, social clubs, educators, and other groups. Professionals who regularly interact with many people (such as police officers, human resource directors, and primary care workers), school and college leadership, faith communities, friends and family of individuals with mental illness or addiction, or anyone interested in learning more about mental illness and addiction can and should get trained.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 42,773 recorded suicides in the United States in 2014, and the annual suicide rate increased 24% over the 15 previous years – the highest rate recorded in 28 years. Imagine, if you could make a difference in just one life because you knew the signs, and knew what to do.

Marlene Schillinger is the former CEO of Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County. Learn how you or members of your organization can get trained in Mental Health First Aid at or call 716-883-1914 ext. 307.