County employees working on the frontlines need to know how to respond to individuals experiencing mental health issues.
Provide training to educate all county employees on how to identify mental health issues at the first stages of crisis.
It’s known as “CPR for the mind.”
In Alachua County, Fla., county officials implemented a new type of training that equips public sector employees with how to best respond to an individual experiencing a mental health problem.
The county created a three-year training initiative using the National Council on Behavioral Health’s Mental Health First Aid training program.
Alachua County’s Collaborative Strategy to Build Awareness of Mental Health Issues and Provide a Practical Response is the recipient of a Best in Category 2020 NACo Achievement Award in the Personnel Management, Employment and Training category.
The training teaches employees about a five-step action plan to respond and identify mental health issues among citizens.
With Florida ranking as the 43rd state in providing access to mental health care by Mental Health America’s America: The State of Health in America report, Stuart Wegener, Department of Court Services Criminal Justice liaison, said the county had a strong interest in expanding mental health activities.
“We had a huge reason to do this and to give frontline employees some tools to identify somebody, particularly at the beginning stages of a mental health crisis, and then give them a little action plan for how to respond,” he said.
The Alachua County commission required the Mental Health First Aid training for all county employees in 2016. Wegener said it is listed as a requirement on each employee’s performance evaluation.
The county launched its training initiative in three phases. The first focused on employees directly hired by the board of county commissioners, which included the county’s core departments.
The second phase focused on employees of a supplemental set of agencies known as the Constitutional and Judicial officers followed by the last phase which included the line staff of seven county municipalities as well as members of charitable agencies that receive county funding for social services.
“We trained everybody,” Wegener said. “It didn’t matter if you weren’t at the front desk. We trained every single county employee.”
More than 2,000 staff received training over the three years of the county’s initiative.
Each training included an eight-hour interactive session in groups of no more than 25. The curriculum provides information on the key strategies needed to assist someone who may be at risk or in the early stages of developing a mental health problem. Participants receive a certification from the National Council on Behavioral Health at the end of the session.
Specialized staff from two Alachua County-based charitable behavioral health agencies who completed a two-day certification program served as the training faculty.
The training covers all types of mental illness ranging from schizophrenia to depression.
“Mental Health First Aid saves lives and reduces stigma by teaching what to say and do when a person is in crisis in a way that keeps both you and them safe,” said Robert Hutchinson, chair of the Alachua County Commission.
Wegener noted that the training gives participants a stronger sense about mental illness and how it affects individuals.
“It sensitizes people I think to a greater degree than they may already know or understand,” he said.
The training is a cost-effective way to transmit knowledge about mental illness to staff, according to Wegener.
Expenses for the county included the equipment, training manuals and costs of operations including hiring training instructors to conduct the program.
The program piqued the interest of the City of Gainesville, the county seat of Alachua County, which held the same training for its 1,100 employees, separate from Alachua County’s initiative.
“Everybody countywide and inclusive of the city has this training, including law enforcement,” Wegener said.
The training is now held through virtual sessions because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which Wegener said has shed light on mental illness and proved the importance of learning about mental health.
“We now find ourselves in a time where it is more useful than ever and probably more needed to take steps to understand mental health,” he said. “Having employees of counties be able to understand and come to grips with this is more important than ever.”