February 28, 2024

Mental Health ‘First Aid’ helps first responders gain awareness

Symptoms, support covered in 8-hour class

If you see someone in public who’s injured, what would you do?

Call for help and render first aid, you say. Maybe help them get to a hospital.

But what if that someone has no visible symptoms of an illness or an injury? What if it’s clear something is wrong, but you can’t see or detect a definite problem?

These are some of the questions Kelly Kirk tries to answer when she periodically conducts “Mental Health First Aid.” The Newton-area native conducts an eight-hour class designed to teach supervisors, first responders and many others about ways to recognize mental illness symptoms and how to support people through crises or difficult episodes.

“We don’t train anyone to diagnose people,” Kirk said. “We train them on what to look for, and how to be supportive and encouraging.”

Kirk said her experiences with her own father helped her see the need for training specific to recognizing symptoms and getting mental health patients to needed care and services. Mental Health First Aid is a national organization that “promotes mental health literacy” and oversees national standards for the eight-hour training. The training helps the public identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness, and Kirk has personally trained groups in Jasper, Warren and Poweshiek counties.

“Sometimes, there isn’t a crisis,” she said. “The key is to look for evidence and look for needs.”

Kirk is certified to train the youth, adult and rural mental health versions of the course. She has trained everyone from Skiff Medical Center staff to law enforcement.

The classes are capped at 12 people per session, with a minimum of seven needed. Kirk is typically approached by organizations, businesses or agencies that want to send an entire group for a day’s training, rather than individuals contacting Kirk to sign up one-by-one.

Some of the groups who take Mental Health First Aid courses include first responders and others in the helping professions, educators and school administrators, university campus staff, members of faith communities, homeless shelter staff and volunteers and caring citizens.

Kirk said she sets her own rates for the courses. Her flat rate for a group of 12 is $750, which would average out to less than $63 per person.

NAMI of Jasper County has had a huge role in helping pay for some of the courses, she said.

Kirk said Mental Health First Aid used to be a 12-hour course, but was reduced to eight hours about two years ago. The 12-hour model was a deterrent — especially if travel was involved; as the format made it a two-day program.

National statistics show as many as 25 percent of the population might have a diagnosable mental illness.

“Most of us have been affected by mental illness in some way, even if we don’t realize it,” Kirk said. “Some people are chronically ill, while others only have one episode in their lifetimes. It’s all about drawing out what’s really going on and determining if help is needed.”

Contact Jason W. Brooks at
641-792-3121 ext. 6532
or jbrooks@newtondailynews.com