‘This is just as important as knowing CPR and basic first aid’

One afternoon this summer, Gretchen Bradshaw and Beth Hemmer gathered in Hillcrest Family Services’ Hadley Chapel with dozens of their Hillcrest colleagues for a new kind of training: mental health first aid.

As the trainers, Bradshaw and Hemmer directed the staff through role-playing scenarios, in which the group experienced — and then discussed — how to respond when encountering someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

“We are there to assess and get them to where they need to be,” Bradshaw, a therapist on the Hillcrest staff, told the group.

This year, Bradshaw and Hemmer are working to train the majority of Hillcrest’s approximately 400 employees in mental health first aid, a system of response for identifying signs of mental illness and helping meet a person’s immediate needs in the event of a mental health emergency.

The Dubuque-based agency, which offers mental and physical health services in addition to addressing other health and family needs, received a $4,000 Community Impact Grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque earlier this year that enabled Bradshaw and Hemmer to become certified Mental Health First Aid U.S.A. trainers. With the certification, the two Hillcrest employees are now equipped to train others at Hillcrest and beyond, establishing a network of knowledgeable mental health first responders that helps address a growing need in the Dubuque region.

“To us, this is just as important as knowing CPR and basic first aid,” said Hemmer, community support services supervisor for Hillcrest.

Learning what to look for

While Hillcrest provides mental health services, providers aren’t the only staff members being trained. The goal, Hemmer said, is to train all employees who have contact with Hillcrest’s clientele, from reception staff to residential and sub-acute care workers.

Through the training, Hillcrest employees learn how to recognize signs of common mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and psychosis, as well as substance abuse. From there, they learn how to approach someone who appears to be in crisis.

A second goal is to help reduce the stigma around mental illness, Hemmer said. While some people might not think twice about providing first aid to someone who is injured, she explained, it’s less common for people to respond similarly to someone exhibiting signs of mental illness. This can be due to a lack of knowledge or misconceptions.

“It can be uncomfortable at first to ask someone if they are feeling suicidal or are struggling with mental well-being, but just listening in a non-judgmental way is important,” Hemmer said.

Potential for expansion

With training underway at Hillcrest, Bradshaw, Hemmer and the Community Foundation now see the potential to train members of the broader community, such as education staff, members of law enforcement and business leaders.

The Community Foundation has identified mental health as a priority issue and is working to address problems that create barriers to care, such as changes in funding streams for services and limited capacity among providers.

In partnership with the United Way of Dubuque Area Tri-States, the Foundation conducted a community needs assessment around mental health services, publishing key findings in November 2016. Among the recommendations is strengthening collaboration among stakeholders and developing a coordinated effort among agencies and organizations to build capacity and alleviate barriers to mental health care.

Because Community Impact Grants are aimed at capacity-building projects, the Community Foundation’s grant reviewers was excited to support training that could potentially impact access to mental health services on a broad scale, said Katie Decker, grants management coordinator for the Foundation.

“The fact that this grant allows Hillcrest to train all staff across the board is so valuable, because Hillcrest touches so many lives, particularly people with acute mental health issues and many underserved populations,” said Chris Corken, a Community Foundation board member and retired Dubuque prosecutor who serves on the Community Impact Grant Review Committee.

Corken said she is exploring ways to bring the training to local law enforcement as an alternative to a more in-depth yet more time-consuming crisis intervention training that some officers have already completed. Combined with the Community Foundation’s work to better connect law enforcement and mental health providers as part of the Project HOPE initiative, the training could help officers understanding how to recognize a mental health crisis and refer someone to treatment rather than make an arrest, she said.

To Bradshaw and Hemmer, ambitions can’t be too high when it comes to training more community members.

“What I love about this training is that it is really open to everyone,” Hemmer said. “You never know when you might encounter someone who needs help.”

For more information about Community Impact Grants and donate to the Community Impact Grant Fund, click here.

To read the Mental Health Services Community Needs Assessment, click here.