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Americares President and CEO Michael J. Nyenhuis leads a health-focused relief and development organization that saves lives and improves health for people affected by poverty or disaster.
There are fuzzy toy koalas on many of my co-workers’ desks these days, and they give me a warm and fuzzy feeling. The stuffed animals were handed out after mental health first aid training and are a reminder that every koala’s owner knows quick steps to address a crisis of anxiety, depression or stress disorder.
We also offer basic CPR training in the office, but I’m especially proud of the mental health first aid training because it’s innovative and desperately needed. More than 43 million people in the U.S. are expected to suffer a mental illness this year. That’s one in five adults — very likely, someone close to you.
With just a day of instruction, you can be the support a friend or colleague needs.
The skills gained aren’t meant to treat a mental illness, but, like regular first aid, act as bridge to professional care. Mental health is like physical health — something to be taken care of and, if there’s an illness, addressed and managed. Mental illness can follow a one-time event, such as sadness or anxiety after a life event such as a job loss. Or, it can be a chronic disease requiring ongoing care, similar to diabetes or high blood pressure. Depression can fall in that category.
With basic knowledge, you can help before a bout of a mental illness erodes a friend’s ability to fully participate in life.
Mental health increasingly tops the agenda at global health gatherings — at a recent United Nations meeting in London, for example. Without addressing depression, anxiety, panic and post-traumatic stress disorder, we have no hope of ending poverty by 2030, the aim of world’s shared Sustainable Development Goals.
Disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes can create unrelenting stress among survivors that can hinder recovery at every scale. That’s why Americares committed to training 5,000 health workers in Puerto Rico and hundreds more in Texas — work that’s begun and already helping. And, with support from donors large and small, Americares is expanding access to health care for low-income people with psychotropic medicine and programs for 139 partner clinics and health centers in 32 states.
To me, mental health first aid is another way of increasing access to health care. When more of us share skills and language around mental illnesses, everyone benefits. And the practical knowledge itself is powerful.
“Everyone should do this,” said one participant in the training, a member of Americares leadership council whose family foundation has been committed to Americares support of behavioral health centers for years. She knows how vital access to mental health services is, yet until the training, never had the tools herself. She told me: “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.”