41 islanders taught how to provide Mental First Aid

Derek Kilbourn

Sounder News

Tuesday, May 5 2015

On April 25 and 26, forty-one Gabriolans took a first aid course. One course focused on providing first aid to someone who is going through an emergent or sudden mental health situation.

The course was co-funded by Island Health and the Gabriola Health Care Foundation.

Nancy Hetherington-Peirce, one of the organizers, said they had planned for 30 spaces, but were able to fit in all 41 islanders who signed up.

Roughly one third of the participants came from Gabriola emergency response backgrounds (ambulance, fire and RCMP); another third were healthcare providers (home support, care aids and educational assistants at the school); and the remaining third were from the general public.

“We were really pleased and we’re hearing very positive comments from participants. That’s what we were hoping for and it was very positive.”

Kristin Stein was the instructor for the course, which is developed and run by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Stein said from her experience at the workshop that “clearly Gabriola is an invested community; it was great to work with.”

Asked to describe if there was anything she saw on Gabriola that differed from either larger or smaller communities, Stein said, “That’s a hard question - I suspect that we all seem to be having our own struggles with mental wellness, whether small or large communities. There are great aspects of being in a small community - services might not be as formalized, there is a different sense of connectedness than a larger urban centre. In a smaller community we come together easier.

“We’re all experiencing similar strains and pressures and pulls on life that are affecting our mental wellness. We’re not immune to that anywhere we are.”

She and Hetherington-Peirce explained the course was designed to teach people how to respond in what Stein called, “a mental health crisis.

“We call it a mental health crisis - the idea is to promote good mental health, it is aimed to prevent mental illness from getting worse, helping someone identify what is going on. Sometimes we can’t see it from inside our own life.”

She added the idea of the course is to help people when professionals aren’t around.

In terms of how people respond in those situations, Stein said she refers to it as, “heart-to-heart, human-to-human. We have to connect. We never know when we might be in the position of needing help from someone else.

“The key to it being first aid - it is similar to physical first aid. It is those initial steps to help in the moment, so things don’t escalate, so we can get more support in and hopefully the bigger system can take over that long-term support. So it is designed to help people when it is hard.”

As for advice to those who were unable to be at the course, Stein said, “I always encourage people to assess safety - yours and the individuals. What are the risks to injury?

“Once you can assess those, that will determine whether you will keep going - if we’re able to see that safety isn’t an immediate concern.”

She added to call 911 if there is an immediate risk to anyone’s safety.

After the safety component, Stein said people need to be able to be calm and approachable in a way that someone will feel comfortable, “and safe to let you know what’s going on.

“Be there in ways we would want a loved one to be supportive. Compassionate, non-judgemental, hearing what is going on, and working backwards to find out what needs can be met.”

Stein explained the idea is then to get people in touch with the medical system for the help needed.

Be that the person’s doctor, a walk-in clinic or 911 emergency response.

“Some people may feel uncomfortable with a fellow Gabriolan, they may want to go to Nanaimo. 

“Meet the person where they’re at and find out what they need.”

As Hetherington-Peirce explained, over the course of the two days there were three areas covered.

1. The course is about mental first aid - not further treatment, not previous education, not prevention. Just dealing with the specific situation that someone is going through.

2. A review of acute mental health problems (panic attack, substance overdose, suicidal behaviour) - the most common acute situations.

3. Some common mental disorders: mood disorders, anxiety, that kind of thing.

As Hetherington-Peirce said, “It was largely informational, and then a fair bit of large group discussion of particular issues people wanted to ask about our community here on Gabriola.”

The website for the course is mentalhealthfirstaid.ca.

Hetherington-Peirce thanked the Gabriola Volunteer Fire Department for donating the use of its training room at the new fire hall to run the course.

“It is an excellent facility and worked really well.”

The course is developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and is a nationally-developed course presented by certified instructors. 

“The other thing I would say about the course that was helpful for the general public is it was an opportunity to have sitting in the same room all three RCMP officers, several paramedics and first responders and members of the public talking about mental health issues on Gabriola for two days. They couldn’t be too frank, or talk too much about experiences because they have to respect the privacy of those who they have been called out to help.

“But it was an opportunity to be more person-to-person in that we’re all in this together, that aspect of the discussion could happen.”

Further courses, either specifically for emergency responders or for the community-at-large, are being looked at for the future.