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Training on the front line of mental health





Since 2009, High Plains Mental Health Center in Hays has been offering a training program to help equip people who often are on the front lines during mental health crises.

A new study conducted by a University of Kansas researcher now affirms the importance of Mental Health First Aid training in northwest Kansas. The eight-hour educational program offers a five-step model to use when interacting with someone in mental distress.

"Bottom line, they feel like they can do something," said Ken Loos, prevention, education and outreach manager at High Plains. "A lot of individuals, I think, feel so helpless around mental health, and when we feel helpless, we kind of pull back. And we don't know how to approach people or talk or somehow make the situation a little bit better."

The study, by assistant professor of social welfare Amy Mendenhall, is to be published in the journal Social Work in Mental Health. Mendenhall collected surveys from 176 northwest Kansas residents who have completed the training through High Plains.

More than half of the respondents -- 70 percent -- said they encountered someone suffering from mental illness since completing the course. Nearly all of them -- 90 percent -- offered assistance.

The survey also indicated 88 percent of respondents felt more confident in their ability to help someone after completing the program.

Mental Health First Aid was developed in Australia. While much research has been done in that country regarding the program's effectiveness, that is not the case in the U.S., Mendenhall stated in a press release from KU.

"I feel, as a researcher, I have that obligation to show the Mental Health First Aid best practices and results that I've found here in Kansas, to put a spotlight on them so people nationally can see what's happening in Kansas," she stated. "Hopefully we can use what we have found in Kansas to improve the knowledge of Mental Health First Aid throughout the country as well."

She also hopes to expand her research to a national level.

Since implementing the program in 2009, High Plains -- which covers 20 northwest Kansas counties -- has conducted 32 regional trainings and certified 659 people in the course. Those surveyed completed the program before 2012.

High Plains especially has been working to educate law enforcement officials, health care providers and school districts about the program. The faith community also has shown an interest in the training, Loos said.

The program could be useful, however, for just about anybody, he said. It's estimated more than a quarter of adults have a diagnosable mental health disorder in a given year, and only half of adults with a disorder receive treatment.

Loos said staff at High Plains was impressed with the survey's results.

"One of the things we all know from taking classes or workshops, a lot of times you have that initial enthusiasm and say, 'This is great stuff,' " he said. "But if you don't have the opportunity to apply it, it kind of goes in a drawer. This really jumped out that it made a difference."

The program can be hosted for groups at no cost, though organizers are asked to secure a meeting location and help promote the event.

Attendees will be asked to purchase a $15 textbook, but High Plains can help if that cost is an issue, Loos said.

For more information about the program, contact High Plains at (785) 628-2871.