Health officials urging first aid for mental health

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 19, 2013 

— Merced County mental health officials want people to be able to recognize the early signs of mental illness so they can intervene in a crisis.

They want Mental Health First Aid to be as common as CPR -- especially in light of the recent shootings that have happened across the country. The program was introduced in Merced County by Marilyn Mochel in 2009.

After being trained through the program, participants are able to recognize when someone is showing the early warning signs of mental illness, said Sharon Jones, a Merced mental health services coordinator.

It gives them the skills to help people get assistance before their condition worsens, she said. "Sometimes people don't even know where to begin when a mental health crisis arrives," she said.

That's why the Mental Health First Aid is helpful, Jones said. For example, people learn to assess when a person is at risk for suicide or doing harm to others.

Anxiety is at the top of the list for mental illness, followed by depression and substance use disorder, Jones said.

This program is particularly important in Merced County, where people are experiencing problems that can lead to some of those conditions.

"We are in an area where a lot of foreclosures have happened and a lot of people have lost their jobs," Jones said.

Mochel said there's a lot of misinformation about mental illness.

"I think that people don't realize in our community that one in four people will experience a mental health condition at some point in their life," said Mochel, who is on the National Alliance on Mental Illness' Merced County board.

She said this program can help prevent tragedies because people who are struggling will be more able to get help early on.

"It keeps people from suffering and feeling isolated," she said. "It empowers the community to be helpers and not to fear of helping someone who is having symptoms of mental illness."

She said the program is helpful for people who work in health care, education and related fields. Mochel said at least 250 people have been trained in the first aid program since it first came to the county.

Nou Chang, who works with the Caring Kids program in Merced, recently went through the training. She said she did it because she saw the need for more mental health awareness in the county.

She said she would like to use what she learned to reach out to the Hmong population in Merced and provide assistance with mental health issues.

"I think they know there's an issue, but they don't want to talk about it," she said. "And we may not have the right term to describe it."

Many of them don't know where to get help, she said. "I think people just don't have the education. I want others to become aware, and I want to help others understand more about mental health and how they can help," she said.

Monica Adrian, also with Caring Kids, said people interested in going through the training can call her office. A group would be ideal, but if an individual person is very interested, they will be flexible, she said.

The county's Mental Health Department also has six employees who are trainers and can educate interested groups of 20 to 25 people, Jones said.

A youth curriculum for the program was recently released. Jones said officials hope to bring the training to Merced as soon as possible.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482, or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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