Mental Health First Aid: Helping People Help People

 

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Michael Allora
Deputy Fire Chief, Clifton Fire Department

 

We don’t provide our services in a vacuum. We don’t provide our services to buildings. We don’t provide our services to corporations. We provide our services to people. We are people who provide services to other people. It’s easy to forget this simple truth. But at the Clifton Fire Department, we’re reminded daily because of our Mental Health First Aid training.

Like many first responders across the country, our department is seeing an increasing number of calls from people who are experiencing some kind of mental health or substance use crisis. This is especially true for us because we provide emergency medical services in addition to responding to fire calls.

In 2013, I took Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training—an intensive 40-hour program to help people with behavioral health disorders access medical treatment and stay out of the criminal justice system. Then, about a year-and-a-half ago, I took Mental Health First Aid Training for Public Safety.

In January, the Clifton Fire Department made a major commitment and engaged the Mental Health Association in Passaic County (MHAPC)[i] to train all 125 members of our team in Mental Health First Aid. We use the tools and techniques we learned every day.

Since completing training, I’ve noticed that there is more conversation about mental health among members of our team, and that is helping reduce the stigma associated with behavioral health issues. People at the Clifton Fire Department are using what they learned in the course in their personal lives as well as their professional lives.

When you are providing services to people in crisis, taking your time, developing a rapport and developing trust is critical. Mental Health First Aid helped all of us develop those skills.

Not long ago, two families were displaced from their homes by a fire. At 2 a.m., the fire was extinguished but one woman was still visibly upset. She was the mother of three children and was unable to reoccupy her home due to the damage.

I talked with her and assured her that she and her family would be taken care of. After a few moments, she said, “You’ve obviously had some empathy training because you and your people have been incredible in helping me and my family.”

This type of reaction from the public, from the people we serve, confirms to me that Mental Health First Aid training is worthwhile. After all, that’s why we’re here—to step out of the vacuum and remember that we are the people who provide service to other people. And Mental Health First Aid helps us do that to the best of our ability.

[i] The MHAPC is part of a consortium created by the Mental Health Association in New Jersey (MHANJ) who with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has formed a coalition of 15 stakeholders under the banner Mental Health First Aid for New Jersey (MHFA4NJ). This consortium is committed to the expansion of Mental Health First Aid in New Jersey.