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What I Learned in Mental Health First Aid as a Person With Suicidal Thoughts

On a Saturday morning in the dead of a Chicago winter, I arrive at the hospital bright and early, eager to sit in a conference room for the next eight hours. The topic: Youth Mental Health First Aid.

In my career, I work with youth in after-school programs and summer day camps. More than ever, we are seeing a startling emergence of mental illness in young people. Certainly, society is getting more fast-paced, more stressful and less accepting of imperfection. More than ever, we have the opportunity — even the obligation — to equip ourselves to provide help to others, whether it’s a listening ear, a reassuring presence, or a resource for finding professional help.

It’s incredible to me that many professions and volunteer positions require certifications in first aid, CPR and AED skills, but very few outside of the medical field require exposure to dealing with mental health issues when it’s as prevalent, if not more so, as many physical conditions. If I could help one youth going through a mental illness feel less alone, I would spend my prized weekend sitting through a full day of training; plus, I got a free stress ball out of it.

I was fully prepared to be confronted with sensitive topics and technical information on what to do in other peoples’ mental health crises. We talked about definitions for various categories of mental illnesses, about prevalence in certain age groups, and about our role as mental health first aiders. As civilians, we can provide basic care to those having a mental health crisis: assessing for risk of suicide or harm and alerting appropriate authorities, or if the risk is not immediate, taking steps to listen and provide support. It was easy to objectively look at mental illness and how it presents in people who are having crises.

In the afternoon, however, things took a more “real” feeling. We ran through scenarios and discussed how we would speak to someone in a mental health crisis. We watched a heart-wrenching video of a young man who survived a suicide attempt.

Finally, we practiced assessing whether a person was at risk of suicide or harm before moving on to the other steps of mental health first aid. The presenters had us practice voicing the very uncomfortable question, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” with the participants at our table.

What these strangers did not know is that I had actually been thinking of killing myself, very recently. It was a hypothetical situation and we were role-playing — they had no idea that I wanted so badly for someone, anyone, to ask me that exact thing, so I did not have to be alone with it anymore.

So often, young people and adults have a tremendously difficult time expressing their experience of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders; I’ve found it almost impossible. It’s a terrifying thing to have to say: “These distressing thoughts are in my mind and I don’t know what to do, please help me.” And just as often as people don’t have the words to describe their pain, we do not have the words to ask.

For me, taking mental health first aid ended up being more than a continuing education opportunity. Sure, it taught me how I can assist others in fighting their own mental health battles. It also opened my eyes to the problem of stigma, to the compassion of human beings, to the importance of vulnerability and reaching out, and perhaps most importantly, the pressing need to share our experiences, despite fearing what others may think about us. It’s much easier to fight with people in your corner than to fight when feeling alone and cornered.

“Never give up on someone with a mental illness. When ‘I’ is replaced by ‘we,’ illness becomes wellness.” — Shannon L. Adler

Photo by Marc Schäfer on Unsplash