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Churches offer mental health first aid training

Many congregations and annual conferences are beginning to offer mental health first aid training. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.
Many congregations and annual conferences are beginning to offer mental health first aid training. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

What do you do if someone has a panic attack in the middle of a church service? How would you respond if someone in your congregation expresses suicidal thoughts or shows signs of post-traumatic stress? If someone in your Sunday school class appears isolated and depressed, how would you approach them? These are just a few of the situations where a church leader might encounter mental illness within the congregation.

Mental health first aid (MHFA) is an eight-hour course that trains individuals to identify and respond to signs that a person may have a mental illness, be experiencing substance abuse or otherwise be in distress. Participants learn a five-step action plan that lets them assess situations, listen non-judgmentally and direct those needing assistance to professional help. Prior medical training is not required. Over 2 million people in the United States have been certified in MHFA.

Living The United Methodist Church’s commitment to removing the stigma around mental illness and ensuring quality mental health services for all people, many congregations and annual conferences are beginning to offer mental health first aid training.

The Susquehanna Conference was among the first to offer training for pastors, laity and community members. Sharon Engdahl, then a research analyst with the PA House of Representatives and a volunteer Past President of the Mental Health Association of the Capital Region, was also serving on the conference’s mental health ministries committee when MHFA began offering instructor trainings in the United States. Engdahl is also the founder and executive director of the Mental Wellness Awareness Association and its and its national organization the American Mental Wellness Association. She attributes the founding of both organizations to the Conference initially supporting the Mental Health First Aid program.

“I was one of the first 100 people to be trained as mental health first aid instructor in America,” Engdahl said. “I wrote up a letter of agreement between the conference and the MHACR to host the first onsite training in 2010. It is a one-day event usually held on a Saturday to accommodate most people’s schedules.” The conference office markets it heavily to local churches and to other non-profits and organizations.

 “A major focus of the training is prevention and intervention,” she continued. “We help participants recognize signs that person might be suffering or in distress early on so that their condition can be treated and managed early. Unfortunately, many people have been conditioned to see mental illness as a sign of weakness. We remind everyone that these disorders are real physical, medical conditions that require real medical treatment so the person can get well. We suggest seeing their family physician as early as possible.. By taking part in the program our trainees become better advocates for mental health,” continued Engdahl.

Susquehanna uses the standard MHFA training materials but “also adapted our own Christian resources that use scripture and theology,” said Engdahl. “We offer specific scripture verses that relate to different conditions such as grief, depression and loneliness. The conference also takes a special offering each year in May for mental health ministries.”

“MHFA helped me to recognize when someone might be experiencing a mental health crisis, and it has given me more confidence to reach out and help them. Sometimes it's as simple as just listening to their story, but it might also involve helping them get a higher level of help, for which I have a list of agencies/resources,’ said Sandii Pieffer, the Susquehanna communications specialist.

Other conferences and church networks are following Susquehanna’s example. Among those offering MHFA trainings in 2019 are Great Plains, Iowa, Baltimore-Washington, Memphis and Western North Carolina conferences.

In Great Plains, the Rose Valley, Downs, Osborne and Smith Center United Methodist churches in Kansas collaborated to host MHFA. The churches hosted training days at Osborne and Smith Center in June and August. 

“In the rural farming areas where most of us serve, suicide and drug addiction are serious problems,” said the Rev. Michael Ricci-Roberts, Smith Center pastor. “We saw a need for the MHFA in helping us better minister to our communities and make sure we know how to help intervene and get people help early on.”

Ricci-Roberts also ministers to the homeless and prison population outside his congregation and applies his training in those environments. “I meet people with mental illness on the street and in prison all the time. Thanks to the training I am able to be a more empathetic and supportive minister to them as well,” he said.

Like the training events in Susquehanna, the Smith Center and Osbourne events were open to the public and attracted not only pastors and church members, but also teachers, daycare employees, foster care parents and municipal employees. Because MHFA requires responders to be recertified every three years, the churches plan to offer the training annually.

“The training materials were very well-designed and easy to follow,” said the Rev. Dorothy Ellsworth, pastor at Osborne UMC. The instructors used group activities to teach the lessons.”

The training also “helped me become more self-aware of my own mental health,” she said. “As a pastor, I, too, deal with a lot of stress and anxiety, but MHFA helped me learn how to manage my stress better through physical exercise and meditation.”

Mental health first aid is one way United Methodists are working to ensure all persons have access to quality health care within the United States. To learn more about MHFA or find a training venue near you, visit the website.

Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer on the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

Annual Conference Programs and Trainings