In the wake of the January Tucson shootings that left six dead and 13 injured, many questioned why the suspect, who had displayed disruptive behavior before, had not been treated for mental health issues.
Behavioral health leaders in Arizona knew more needed to be done to educate the public about mental health, to ease the stigma attached to mental illnesses and to identify people who may be suffering.
So the group searched for and found at least one solution in an international program that certifies people in mental health first aid, much in the same way the public can be certified in CPR.
So far, 78 people in Arizona have undergone the five-day training to become mental health first aid trainers. The state hopes that group will help educate more than 3,000 people during 12-hour certification courses now being offered in several communities, including the Valley.
In Arizona, one in four people may suffer from a mental health illness.
In the case of Jared Loughner, the man accused in the Tucson shootings, officials at Pima Community College - where he attended classes - had asked his parents to "obtain a mental health clearance" before they would readmit him after he was suspended for "disruptive" activity.
Loughner dropped out rather than return to school and apparently never underwent the mental health evaluation. Last week, he was ruled incompetent to undergo a trial. He will have three months of mental treatment and then be reevaluated.
The idea behind mental health first aid is to train the public in how to assess a situation and get someone assistance, said Claudia Sloan, who works in the state's division of behavioral health services.
"It's about stabilizing (the situation) until professional help arrives in a crisis," Sloan said.
During the course, participants learn how to assess a situation, signs and symptoms of major mental illnesses, how to access resources in the community and how to listen. Participants walk away with a book full of more information and certification that is good for three years.
Anyone is welcome to take the course. No special qualifications are needed. The class is currently available free of charge through a federal grant and donations from community groups, Sloan said.
Stephanie Uetrecht is one of the new trainers. Uetrecht is an outreach and training coordinator for the state's division of behavioral health services. She joined the dozens of others from law enforcement, schools, colleges and more who will now teach others what they've learned.
"You know what CPR is for. Mental health first aid is parallel to that except for mental health issues," she said.
During her training to become an instructor, Uetrecht said one of the best tools she learned was the acronym ALGEE - meant to help first-aiders remember how to examine a situation.
"When you're in a crisis of any kind, it's hard to recall, ‘What do I do?'" she said. ALGEE is meant to help that.
"It has given people a memorable tool to easily recall," Sloan said.
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