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By Gwen Clayton

The Jefferson Center for Mental Health is offering free Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) classes to the public through the end of 2017.

“One in five people in their lifetime will experience a mental health problem,” said Stephanie Schiemann, Director of Marketing and Public Relations for the Jefferson Center for Mental Health. “If you look around and think about your five neighbors or your family, chances are very good that you know somebody who’s got depression, anxiety, substance use or other mental health conditions.”

MHFA teaches people how to recognize, respond to and assist with potential mental health issues and crises using a five-step action plan. The classes are provided free through Dec. 31 to Jefferson County residents, courtesy of the Community First Foundation’s Lutheran Legacy Fund. The Foundation awarded the grant to the Jefferson Center to facilitate the MHFA Jeffco Collaborative – a group of 13 organizations that have a shared vision and commitment to deliver free MHFA training to employees, family, friends and members of the public.

“Community First Foundation wanted to take all of our initiatives to the next level and really saturate Jefferson County with mental health first aid, and take it to all corners, with the goal of making it as common as CPR in Jefferson County,” Schiemann said. “Coming together was a really nice way of us creating that shared mission and then the strategic plan for how to move it forward.”

Once the group established a strategic plan, the members started talking about specific audiences that hadn’t yet been reached with mental health first aid. They developed target audiences and through the networks of the collaborative, sought opportunities to offer the class.

Members of the Collaborative include Community First Foundation, Jefferson Center for Mental Health, West Pines, Jeffco Public Library, Jeffco Public Schools, Metro Community Providers Network (MCPN), Vietnam Veterans of America, Jeffco Public Health, Jefferson County Housing Authority, Edgewater Mayor, City of Westminster, Lakewood Police Department, Arvada Police Department and The West Chamber of Commerce.

“Mental Health First Aid training has increased knowledge and improved recognition skills of our staff, providing tools for real-world application – both professionally and personally,” said Belinda T. Smallwood, Manager of Professional Development for Metro Community Provider Network. “Staff who complete the program often comment regarding the value of the training, sharing they feel more prepared to offer support and get appropriate help for those who might be experiencing a mental health crisis.  As a result, we are even better positioned to serve the needs of our patient population.”

Jarred McNeely, Director of Education for the Colorado School of Trades, agrees.

“MHFA is important to myself and my staff in that it gives us tools to better support our students,” he said. “My staff is better prepared to identify possible problems, ask the tough questions, and direct students to resources that are available within our community. In turn the support we can provide the students allows them to focus on school and be more successful as students. I believe that is the goal of any school, and MHFA helps us attain that goal.”

Jefferson Center for Mental Health has been providing Mental Health First Aid since 2009. Other members of the Jeffco Collaborative have been providing the training to their employees for the past two or three years.

Schiemann said the most common mental health conditions locally and nationally are anxiety and depression. While mental health issues are present year-round, the holiday blues can be particularly troubling.

“Extra stress, unrealistic expectations or even sentimental memories that accompany the season can be a catalyst for the holiday blues,” wrote Laura Greenstein in an article published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “Some can be at risk for feelings of loneliness, sadness, fatigue, tension and a sense of loss…A lot of seasonal factors can trigger the holiday blues such as less sunlight, changes in your diet or routine, alcohol at parties, over-commercialization or the inability to be with friends or family.”

“MHFA gets people talking about mental health and mental health problems,” Schiemann added. “We’re having that conversation and learning more and understanding more about what it really is and what it really looks like and how prevalent it is.”

One aspect of MHFA training is battling stigma and the public’s perception of those who struggle with mental health challenges.

“It prevents people from accessing care, or telling other people that they’re struggling for fear of being labeled a certain way, or losing a job or a relationship,” Schiemann said. Stigma looks different in different communities. For example, employees worry about being labeled as incompetent, and parents dread the thought of losing their children. Veterans may fear being perceived as being weak or labeled as dangerous.

“Actually, the vast majority of folks with mental health challenges are more often the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators,” Schiemann said.

Interested parties can sign up for public MHFA classes through the Jefferson Center, or schedule onsite training for organizations that gather a group of 20 to 30 students. To date, the Jeffco Collaborative has trained more than 3,500 people through this program.

For more information, visit www.mjfajjcmh.org or call 303-432-5155.